Bonobo - The North Borders

2010 - as all years end up becoming - belong to a select few of artists and bands in the music World. Sinking deeper into the biosphere of such a World - close to the marshy subterranean sweep of downtempo-come-trip-hop music - Bonobo's Black Sands was one of the more individualistic, artist-focused triumphs of the year. The British producer's fifth album - and forth for Ninja Tune - was a shining (but not glaring) example into treating technique-driven instrumentation with just the right amount of influence from electronic music; humane vocals given the synthetic sample treatment, yet still coming off melodic and organic enough in their innocence. Black Sands, to end, was one of those moments when artifice and technology helped, rather than hindered, conventional instrumental song-writing. Yes, there were synths, and sure there was some pleasant production values, but where others falter, Simon Green's (real name behind the Bonobo moniker) increased refining of his methods lead him to create one of 2010's finer electronic [produced] albums. It's taken three years for him to develop a follow-up and The North Borders lands on a pleasant stream of releases that have, as noted, seemingly been building towards a better-sought goal. But with 2010 seeing Bonobo meeting a point that felt as fresh and as achieved as his palette for downtempo electronics could muster, the question now becomes: where does Bonobo go from here?

Perhaps the border in question - as suggested in the title - sees Bonobo on this record meeting his standards and, possibly - unable, more likely - to reach for anything more. First Fires is a closeted glimpse back to Green's early influence of hip-hop beats and slow RnB grooves. Grey Reverend's guest vocals certainly give the music a very gracious and smooth transition too - music accomplishing what mode of relaxed, sun-glazed textures it's set out to create. And between each murmured beat and the treading percussion that follows it, there's a shuffled yet fond momentum to the way the music slowly unfolds. But maybe too this record is a precursor or a suggestive underlining as to the limits and boundaries that confine this particular sub-genre of electronic music. Perhaps, as we come to learn, both points end up being raised regarding Green's jurisdiction and means of evolution in his music. Emkay follows with more of an energy about the way the drumbeats are laid out, and while we're still treated to a familiarity of softening keys that add a silky texture to the piece, the music alone doesn't necessarily entice or excite its listener beyond its clicked, head-bobbing appeal. It's the vocals however that do justice, and as expected, Bonobo's sample-heavy emphasis on repetition and rhythm is what makes itself known best of all. There's a 2-step/early millennium vibe coming from the way the vocals and percussion tie in with one another here. And while the backing layer of analogous synths and keys do little to add any depth to the music, the less-electronic parts are what keep me hooked.

Percussion is of course an element of Bonobo's music that comes up trumps on this album. As Cirrus demonstrated quite magnificently when it first dropped - and still does even in its full near-six minute version - there's no getting away from how rich and cultivating the mix of percussion instruments are here. From the bitter swatches of stick-hits to the shake of what sound like tambourines, to the chime of bells, there's something for everyone here. But more importantly, Green doesn't let the over-extensive use slip out of his control - the inflating progression of bass pulls the track up and gives it a rather curved physique and for that, the music comes across rather more impacting and direct because of it. But even with this, it's the drum work and well-sought use of percussion that remains the highlight here, and given how these sounds appear to have no real set age or quality to them - some instruments sounding sanitized and monotonous; others sounding as if there's still dust lying about the corners - it only adds to the diversity and wide parameter of sounds Bonobo has clearly delved his creative hands into. In that regard, I can commend how Green manages to arrange and organize what is, on the face of things, a heap of instruments and sounds. So to see him excel with what is a large amount of ideas and compositions, it's rather unsettling to see that the more simpler pieces come off rather sluggish and sloppily delivered.

As you approach [what I will designate] the second quarter of this record, it feels more and more as if Bonobo is retreating once more into this fail-safe all-is-well height of optimism that many a downtempo sound often tries to project as original, but in conclusion, just comes off rather dull and done-before. Heaven For The Sinner's stop-start clunk of drums does little to disprove my feelings that the track never really gets going or even looks to drive itself forth. Even when Erykah Badu finds herself pushed between the loop of percussion and lavish string samples, even her voice loses what momentum and sequential flow it tries to muster. In the end, despite what fluttered and wavy textures the string instruments offer, the track feels more and more the equivalent of turning a key in an ignition, only to hear the engine fail to get going. I think then the reason why I prefer Sapphire over the former track then, is the way this particular piece doesn't go out of its way to make out like its atmosphere, or even its audible stance is anything ground-breaking or, put bluntly, intriguing for the outside audience. The tempo is more upbeat; drums come off punchier and rather passionately against what is still a very blissful and dreamy view of keys and strings. But as noted, Bonobo's skill with chopping vocals and arranging them into patterns, gives the overall feel of a track like this, a sense of mystery, yet without any of the unfathomable obscurity that often discourages us from sinking further into it.

This is what I feel is the most crucial outcome for a field of this caliber: immersion. It's clear from Green's treatment of synths and production techniques - via his use of delayed positioning and melding of synthetic and organic into one swirling slick of colours perhaps not far off from the tones presented on the cover sleeve - that he favours immersion over expression; a feeling of involvement as opposed to surveying and understanding in that regard. Unfortunately, where I feel Bonobo is trying to create the most depth by blurring the musical boundaries between instruments, the songs come off rather stuck in first gear - never really aiming or even sighting a particular goal. Rather, just floating about an endless space and expecting part of its being to do the rest. Tracks like Towers offer moments rather than fully-realized spectacles. While the track does feel intended to lay in what is this nestled vestibule of percussion hits and blurred keys, by the time the listener feels the track is getting somewhere, it's already done and finished with. Instrumentally, there's enough to suggest that a certain atmosphere or feeling of engagement can (and has been) created, but as far as actually immersing its listener, it still comes off rather foreign and devoid of any real solid ground to base itself off. It all feels up in the air; darting rather than directing. As is the case with Don't Wait, while Green makes some interesting tie-in's with the vocals around the crumbly texture of drums and bobbling electronics, as a whole the track has very little to make itself stand out and be accounted for. But even if taken as an individually-marked piece, there's sparse development and textural creativity with what these layers of sound may be thriving to create. While I wouldn't say this caters to being merely background filler, to say this music comes off directly frontal and brimming with strength would also be a critical error of judgement.

It's fortunate then - though on closer inspection, can be equally worrying if we're relating back to the idea of previous albums already succeeding at said means of production - that a track like Know You shows up and enlightens us in what it is that got me interested in Bonobo's music in the first place. Again, there's an emphasis on more early 00's garage rhythms, but more surprisingly, the track rather takes its time to develop and build to what is its main vocal accompaniment. The best part of listening to these type of sampled vocals looping in such a hiccuped fashion is working out what they're attempting to say. What sounds like 'The more you know/The less you live' could be completely wrong, and translate as something else to another fellow listener. But away from the slightly cryptic analysis of words, what gives this track its edge over its counterparts is Bonobo's tantalizing focus on rhythm and how the tension present in the percussion only seeps through into the positioning of the vocals and glistened brightness of the synths that rise up from beneath near the track's end. And the way Antenna follows this straight-after is a welcome return to more positive listening experiences. Green's more choppier incorporation of instruments actually suits his style better, and it's a fond reminder as to what Black Sands did so well at achieving. There's a flutter of woodwind here and some piano work there, and amidst the track's stern placement of drums and shimmered percussion, there's definitely more of a charismatic charm about the textures created here. To further prove that this can all be achieved without long-winded progression, the track is the shortest of the thirteen offered - clocking in just over three-and-a-half minutes. The closing moments of the album - in the shape of fairly warming seclusion, Transits & Pieces - offer some more insight into how lyrical vocals work alongside sampled ones, but even with Bonobo's layered efforts, and his focus on similarly warmer-treated synth tones and percussion, again such attempts leave me feeling rather out-of-place and unsure what or where it is the track is longing to reach for.

As the opening line to the closing track offers, this album does indeed feel like it's quality and its longevity 'lies in the eyes of the beholder'. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel that Bonobo has rather become accustomed to simply letting his fairly modest instrumentation retain its sought independence of discovery, and as a result, has forgotten to hold at least some dictation over what sort of atmosphere or feeling this music is meant to be expressing. What listeners will find on an album like this, is that the music rather ignores its audience and feels more-and-more as if it's too busy asking itself even more problematic personal questions. As a whole however, The North Borders comes off optimistic and charmingly pleasant, and doesn't necessarily feel as if it's wanting to show itself suffering from, not so much an identity crisis, but a struggle to find an appealing one. But rarely does it explain, or even elaborate, on its choice of whisking such string, key and percussive instrumentation together. Where Green succeeds - fortunately in a fair few moments on this record - is when his stern production focuses on just one area of instrumentation, or, his established ideas return to the forefront and vocals are of this pleasant musical-like flutter that is both dreamy texturally, but are fairly concrete in presence likewise. For the most part, Bonobo's sound comes off rather [emotively] lost in its own bliss. As if unintentionally fulfilling its title, the music feels as if it's reached the borders of its own specialism; its potential maximized and itself knowing not how to expand and develop. Had this not have held the same intriguing flurry of cool, calming tones and hues I feel have seeped through to the listener, this might have been a worse outcome. But even with Green's key expertise and fondness for instrumental deliverance - because of how continuously striving for an answer and direction this album feels - by the end of things, a warped variant of the original question emerges from out the settled dust: where is it we're going again?


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Discovery: Bonobo - The North Borders
Bonobo - The North Borders
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