Monday, 15 October 2012

Kosheen - Independence (2012) Review

Well, after five years, mysterious legal issues and multiple postponements, Kosheen's fourth album finally got a release on the 30th of September. While some snippets of tracks had been on Youtube, other tracks given away on SoundCloud and some singles have been released for real which I covered last month, I now have the finished product in my hands. The band's previous works were all albums that take some thought to explain, and Independence is definitely a continuation of this trend. Kosheen have created an album with a sound that sticks out as unusual and grimy in 2012 but which doesn't lack care and attention. The strengths the band has demonstrated in the past are almost all present, without them dominating the production so much that it's more of the same.

If Resist, Kokopelli and Damage were to form a triangle of connected but different styles, I'd say Independence would sit in the middle of it. Finally after over a decade, Kosheen have returned to the dance music they last explored on Resist. The progression of Decoder and Substance's work together into techno territory has resulted in several tech-edged songs here, and also a sole reappearance of drum and bass on "Mannequin". The electro and synthpop elements which came in with previous album Damage remain very strong on most of this album despite slightly fewer melodic elements, but the similarity to Kokopelli is evoked by the dark and grimy sound of a considerable fraction of this album.

If there's something I wasn't expecting it was this last element, which is particularly prominent at the album's opening. The production style used is such that tech house and electro elements are implemented in a style quite removed from that of most commercial dance music in 2012 - the mixes are hot, the sound is grimy and in one or two places sludgy, and some of the synths are coarse enough that the overall feel borders on the industrial. In spite of how dubious this might seem to an EDM listener in 2012, the arrangement, mixing and production are actually well crafted enough not to lose the depth of the tracks under a load of fuzz and compression - while Kosheen do seem to prefer subtractive synths and quite gritty drums, everything is sufficiently well defined not to tire your ears out or sounding like overproduced. The first seven tracks all show aspects of this grimy industrial slant.

Very techy openers "Addict" and "Tightly" set this up fairly well, not yet hitting you with much grime but certainly using plenty of effects, noise and particularly well used vocals from Sian Evans to bring you into this moody atmosphere that will dominate most of the CD. Breakbeat track "Waste" sounds like it will be more clinical at first, with the album's first clear verse-chorus-verse arrangement and a more prominent vocal in the verses to let Sian's voice come out, but switches gears on the listener in the chorus. Not only does Sian get more powerful here, but the production adds a wall of hot, crunchy formant-filter synth under this, which took me rather by surprise at first - especially as the previously hinted version of this song was a more conservative house track without this grit. This is what I would call the sludgiest part of the whole album, and the fact that it doesn't quite flood the mix is a definite positive and a sign of how well balanced the production is. It makes a very distinctive sound and probably makes it a harder listen but it doesn't bury the drums or the vocals, allowing everything to work. "Waste" definitely made me take notice, and given its distinctiveness and the quality of the singing on this song, it's one of my favourites. Previous single "Get a New One" now makes more sense in context, with it being far more driving than the preceding tracks but nevertheless sounding sonically consistent - I was sceptical of this song when I reviewed it before but it's far more enjoyable here, bringing the tempo back up, opening a bit of space but still having that rough texture to it.

The element of Kosheen that isn't as strong on this album is that of a full vocal centred band - Sian's voice is so distinctive and strong that it's an unmistakeable core of the previous three albums but on a lot of "Independence" she isn't as prominent despite there being only one instrumental - the move away from more conventional songs has resulted in the songwriting being a less important part of this album's thrust in my opinion. She sounds good on "Get a New One" but "Bella Donna" is a great song for Sian to finally come a bit more to the fore on. She gets to use a significant range on this one and the sultry verses fit the triplet rhythm perfectly. This is still a darker song but its more minimal approach is a good contrast to what precedes it. This is a particular highlight, and it wouldn't have been out of place on "Damage" and as such will probably be a song older Kosheen fans will warm to quickly.

My personal favourite on this album is "Dependency". This manages to combine the techy production the band has already shown with an almost deadmau5-like intro buildup, use of breakbeats in a way the band hasn't shown since Resist, a rough but funky bassline and a very warm saw-wave based chord breakdown with Sian's hypnotic vocals in it, with the result being quite an unexpected progression between sounds which somehow seems to work brilliantly. It seems in some ways to be a microcosm of both this album and the band's past work, with some of that very coarse edge remaining but it has a bright side to it too. An adept DJ could put this into a tech, electro or progressive house set and it would work with any of them in the right context - it doesn't lean toward any of those poles strongly enough to be too generic but it is a strong song it it's own right so it doesn't sound like a messy fusion attempt at all. This one manages to be fairly forward looking but have significant retro appeal to it and I'm glad they pulled this off - with any justice this should be a single. Following track "Manic", another dark techy breakbeat song, marks the end of the grimy section of the album, with a very good arrangement and composition diminished slightly by a less interesting vocal performance.

The dubby instrumental "Zone 8" marks the album's move toward an opening up to a more clinical and less dense sound, with a bit more polish coming to the surface and some welcome relaxed downtempo material giving some extra dimensions to the album, albeit not the most interesting parts of it. This is where the tracks sound more in keeping with the modern slick production trend as the grime clears. Darkness is still very much in evidence, however. Zone 8 resembles a wonky darkstep track slowed down a bit – moody, full of techy sounds and slightly off-kilter rhythm, and is thankfully not a drag in spite of Sian's absence from it. Actual DnB track “Mannequin”, which I have considered previously, follows and this is the most clinical of the album's tracks. As I said in that review, it's nice to hear them doing this again, but the fact that this is Damage style track done at 175bpm doesn't actually make it a particularly great track in this genre – it's just too sterile, devoid of both the rough low-tech grit of the era Decoder and Substance were prominent in, or the bright loud sound of modern DnB. This would be forgiveable if it made up for it with a great song, but it's merely a decent one – a strong performance from Sian, but not great lyrics and too large gaps between her parts, and the melodies and atmosphere don't plug this gap. If this had drawn on the industrial sound of the album's first half and brought that to a drum and bass track then, like “Dependency” they would have had something really unusual and interesting here, but unfortunately this one is the album's damp squib. Put this alongside any of the band's other drum and bass and it just sounds hollow.

Luckily the next song does it much better - “Something New", here as a remix by Visionz, is exactly what I would want from a dubstep track on this album. This has some of the synthpop sound and a bit of the dark tone of this album which almost makes it sound like industrial synthpop in spite of its half-time 140 bpm tempo - right up until the drop, that is. Normally robotic brostep synths are anathema to my tastes but Visionz, who has already shown he can do something interesting with his mix of “Mannequin” manages to bring in a very loud, twisty and funky lead here that manages to dominate but not overwhelm the mix, giving plenty of room to breathe but still hitting very hard. The only slight downside to this is that Sian contributes only to the verses, but as a hard dubstep track it's good to hear a very different take on the formula – I think Visionz is definitely a man to watch.

Industrial downtempo “Out There” and the relaxed but techy “Enter” are two more tracks that definitely work as dark, and clear downtempo moments on an album that's otherwise quite harsh and energetic, but again, these songs would be better off with a much stronger contribution from Sian Evans than they have. All three of the previous albums had unexpectedly good moments when the band went in a trip-hop direction, and the production and textures on these are probably as good but without the vocal centre holding it together they don't match up. “You Don't Own Me” is yet another, here in the “Dungeon Mix” and sounding like a pretty decent example of the dungeon dubstep style, from it's moody organ to the heavily reverbed drums and samples of Sian's voice processed in the background. I like this one, but as a fan of Kryptic Minds' class-leading Can't Sleep album from last year which did great things with vocals on such tracks, for a band like Kosheen to make this a near-instrumental is a huge letdown.

The album concludes on “Spies”, which brings us out of the lows of the previous three songs just in time for the end. This has changed slightly since it was previewed for the remix contest – now the arrangement is slightly different, most noticeably in that the bridges after the choruses have been changed to a half-time dubstep arrangement, which does create a sort of stop-start feel to the progression but makes it a bit funkier. Like “Get a New One”, this again sounds better in context, with it's more aggressive sound reminiscent of the beginning of the album and is definitely a decently produced song, tending towards the industrial end of electro house and has a pretty good groove provided by the up-down bassline. It is still let down by it's too short verses and chorus - which seems to lead toward what is my biggest issue with the entire album.

That issue is that there isn't enough Sian Evans on this record. While "Zone 8" is the only track without her, this album clearly marks something of a break from the Kosheen of old, who whether they were doing drum and bass, trip-hop rock, or synthpop were a vocal pop band at the core. Independence has so many moments where I can't help but feel her contribution came after the track composition and the track wouldn't suit a more vocal-centred approach. As a long-term fan of the band I wanted Sian to start singing so much more, because after all whatever Decoder and Substance talents are in the many styles they've explored, she is the constant that runs through the band's career and not many other singers in electronic or dance music are as distinctive – she is arguably the bands unique selling point.

While a greater vocal focus to this album would raise my enjoyment of it, I still think this manages to reach my standard of “good” and I'm going to be revisiting it often. Although there are some songs here with more potential than they achieve, there are others like “Dependency”, “Waste” and “Something New” which were big successes and manage to avoid most of the obvious cliches of modern EDM – or even better, use them anyway in a sufficiently unusual way that we have a modern sounding track but not a tiring and predictable journey. The grime coating the early tracks works in the album's favour from my perspective, as it continues the rule of Kosheen never making an album that sounds the same as the last one and managing to perplex anyone expecting more of the same. Luckily the band has managed that at the same time as having a few callbacks to their old work and without losing most of their tight and uncomplicated touch. With more good “proper” songs it would perhaps be a great album, and I would be comparing it to vocal dominated gems like OceanLab's Sirens of the Sea, Andain's You Once Told Me and, particularly, their own Resist, and I do have to confess this is probably what I wanted to get which might prejudice my opinion. Nevertheless this is worth a check out and gives me some confidence that this band will continue to go on making music with character and charm and not lose it in a sea of conformity.

Must-listen tracks: Waste, Bella Donna, Dependency and Something New.

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