Sunday, 16 September 2012

Kosheen - Kokopelli (2003) Review

Kosheen's second album, released in 2003 to much anticipation after the success of Resist, is the album that surprised fans, annoyed detractors and mystified commentators with the unexpected style jump from the Bristolian drum and bass and trip hop of the first album to a new rock inspired electronic album. This album is the missing link in my Kosheen review articles and thus demands a review.




The album's release was preceded by "All in my Head", the second song on the tracklist. This song is a firm favourite of mine, having inspired one of the previous names of this weblog and is a song I attach a lot of meaning to due to events long after its release. Yet it's still easy for me to remember how odd this song seemed to me and indeed many Kosheen fans open hearing it for the first time, probably through a fuzzy low bitrate stream on a label or magazine website (the only way to get previews back then). New dance tracks would have been heard of through a show on Radio 1 like Pete Tong's, or Dave Pearce's, or maybe on Kiss 100, but this was not one of those songs. The reaction of a lot of solid electronic music fans and drum and bass heads in particular to this song was of instant consternation - it's pop rock! A collapse of a once interesting band into Radio 2 blandness a la Texas! I would admit that even though I liked the song fairly early on I was baffled by it as well, I though the site I heard it on had got a remix or something, but it soon became clear it was the real deal. The song didn't do badly and entered the Top 10 and Kosheen were soon doing gigs on TV and the internet complete with a full band setup - guitars, bass and drums all present and correct.

This new approach is followed through fully on the album, although “All in my Head” is one of the most optimistic and brightest songs on this disc, especially the first half. The downbeat moods that were one element of Resist are energised by the new guitars and less danceable rhythms of this album and a more aggressive and angry sound appears, making comparisons to past alternative acts like the Cure and even near contemporaries like Evanescence common for critics to resort to at the time, and quite appropriately in both cases. The electronic sound remains a core element of this album though, with the drum arrangements still retaining some of the slightly coarse tone and programmed feel of the trip hop songs on Resist. It is clear upon listening to these songs how this element in particular separates this from actually being rock, as it doesn't have quite the spontaneity or the energy of a live drummer, and thus for listeners who dislike electronic music because of static drums will fault this album for it. Furthermore the guitar tones sound unusual for a rock album - certainly they lack the character associated with most expensively produced rock and especially stood out as rather bland compared to the still-relevant nu metal boom of the time this album was released. Decoder and Substance are, based on my observations of them live and the sounds on this album, merely competent guitarists and not masters of this craft. For electronic music fans the issue becomes how the rock and pop elements are melded with the electronics, rarely done even today and incredibly risky in 2003. My overall impression on this album is that the percussion and drum arrangements are far less effective than they were on Resist and contribute significantly to the impression that this album drags on. Not helping is the lack of tracks with minimal beats, giving space for the music and time to breathe, and also the complete lack of upbeat danceable tracks. For a band who managed to balance the juxtaposition of 170 bpm drum and bass with trip hop at half that tempo on their first album, the far more monotonous pace of these 12 songs is a major setback for the disc as a whole. That all the bright spots of the album are at the beginning and end leaving a much more oppressive middle has a similar effect, bringing comparisons to the darker albums of the Cure right back, rather than the far more varied feel you would have on a New Order album, to name another band with less than stellar musicianship but nevertheless the character to make great electronic pop album with rock elements. If you're not in the mood for a bit of brooding and just want to jump up and go nuts, there is nothing for you here.

Yet I do actually have a mostly positive feeling about this album, and this is largely due to both the strength of individual songs holding it up, the decent instrumentation when Decoder and Substance play to their strengths, and the distinctiveness of Sian Evans' voice, once again. Album opener "Wasting my Time" is a strong track, with a post-punk intro and verse leading into a much bigger stadium sized chorus with Sian belting out the lyrics over gritty guitar chords. "All in my Head" follows, and the much brighter tone, acoustic guitar backing and even more anthemic chorus boost this love song to one of the album's highlights. After this peak, the album darkens for the next six songs. "Crawling", "Avalanche" and "Suzy May" have a similar sound to them, going for another stadium-like sound but not quite reaching the peaks of "Wasting my Time" and are perhaps let down by the band's sometimes questionable lyrics, which I normally forgive because of the music, but these songs are not outstanding in any regard. These songs play too much to the bands weaker guitar sound than the electronics, and while I don't dislike them they are not a highlight for me. "Blue Eyed Boy" and "Wish" have more of a nod to trip-hop in their more obviously electronic production and this serves to make them stand out far more. The very moody "Wish" is my highlight out of this section of the album, as the energy of this one belies it's relatively low tempo and I feel like the contrast between it's more restrained verse and angry chorus works very effectively, something that the best of Kosheen's songs usually bring to the ear ("Same Ground Again" on Damage does the same). "Swamp" is an oddity, being Kosheen's sole instrumental on the three albums and is an almost droning noise-rock style track, which the band often opened sets with in this period before Sian took to the stage. I actually like this as it does not become a dirge and it certainly shakes the feel of the album up in terms of composition (if not mood and tone) and a little more experimenting would have been welcome, but it's not to a lot of Kosheen fans' liking due to the lack of vocals. If there were a few more excursions down this path (as well as some brighter variations on it) this could have elevated the album, I feel, but as it is it stands alone and was not even included on non-UK versions of the album.

After this interlude is, "Coming Home" the first reappearance of the acoustic guitar lead vibe and a bit of a welcome relief from the pronounced low of the previous tracks. Although it isn't all sunny there is a return to optimism and an anthemic chorus here, recalling some of the slower sections of the Resist album. For these reasons this is another standout for me, and the next track "Ages" is almost there too, with only the slightly disappointing vocal in the chorus marring the mood of this one for me. "Recovery" is the final dark patch of the album but another one of my early favourites, as the energy and electronic elements are prominent here. The drums hit hard, the guitars support Sian's voice in the powerful chorus and the verse provides the contrast to that peak. Finally album closer "Little Boy" is another acoustic guitar and trip-hop track, a more relaxed ending than Resist's "Gone" but still works on the same elements - soaring strings, good lyrics and very solid production. After an album with some considerable lows this is a good way to end the disc, and the quality of the final four songs goes some way into making this an album I come back to rather than cherry pick.

On the whole I put this album well above average, but the issues created by the band's tonal and genre shift and the points at which they have not managed to make the transition successfully (mostly after the high of "All in my Head" has worn off) usually prevent me from recommending this in its entirety to those who are not into dark and occasionally gothic new-wave style music, like The Cure or perhaps Depeche Mode. While Resist is a dnb/trip-hop must have and Damage is an overlong but under-appreciated synthpop gem, Kokopelli has second-album syndrome to use a music reviewer cliche, as the band tries to find it's feet and fumbles on some of the new territory they tried to enter. In spite of this, the strengths the band had on their first album are intact, and if you like Sian Evans' voice on the dance songs, you'll like it here too. It's just a shame they didn't really let their hair down and the tempos increase on this disc. It's worth considering the impact of this album on the band's image and career, and I will go into this in my sum-up review next week.

Must listen tracks this time around are: Wasting My Time, All in My Head, Coming Home and Little Boy.

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