Last year, music industry pundits assured us that the Next Big Thing would be "electronica" (the catch-all term given techno, trance, drum 'n' bass and other DJ-designed forms of electronic dance music). This was to be the final nail in the coffin of rock and roll, the high-tech trend that would once and for all wean us away from the antediluvian clangor of electric guitar.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the future -- rock didn't go away. Indeed, it turned out that the most popular examples of electronica were those that sounded most like rock and roll, particularly "big beat" singles like Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafeller Skank."
Consequently, when word leaked out that the Chemical Brothers had been collaborating with a host of rock singers, including Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Bernard Sumner of New Order and Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, the general assumption was that the Chemicals were planning to add more of a rock feel to their music. After all, the thinking went, wouldn't the duo be smarter just to go with the flow?
Could be, but instead, the Chemical Brothers went in the opposite direction. "Surrender" (Astralwerks 47610, arriving in stores today) is their most adamantly electronic effort, an album that gives no ground to current trends, yet manages to be their catchiest and most pop-friendly album to date.
Credit much of that accessibility to the Brothers' way with a song. Although the Chemicals -- DJ/programmers Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons -- have deep roots in the abstract grooves of techno and trip-hop, "Surrender" has quite a strong pop sensibility, offering strong melodies, coherent verse/chorus structures and a clear sense of musical direction. A couple of tracks -- the moody "Out of Control" and the sweeping, triumphant "Let Forever Be" -- would be as at home in the Top-40 as in an underground dance club.
Still, there's no denying the synth-happy bent "Surrender" has taken. "Music: Response," in fact, opens the album as virtual tribute to the pioneering synthesizer band Kraftwerk.
Never mind that the chorus sample comes from a hip-hop record (Nicole's "Make It Hot") or that the bass line thumps with the deep insistence of ambient dub. The overall feel of "Music: Response" is pure Kraftwerk, from the chirruping, pocket-calculator synths to the flat, robotized sound of the electronically treated vocals. Even the rhythm breakdown at the end trades the usual funk-record samples for swirling, swooshing synths.
The duo's fondness for old-school electronics is equally pronounced on "Out of Control," although here, the influ- ences tend more toward '80s electro-rock. It helps, of course, that the song is a collaboration with Bernard Sumner, who helped establish the electro vocabulary as part of New Order.
But as much as the Chemicals exploit the New Order-ish contrast between the languid anxiety of Sumner's voice and the thrumming urgency of the sequencers, they nonetheless put their own stamp on the track by adding layer upon layer of synth sounds. Using intricately articulated electronics to add texture and momentum to a groove has long been a Chemical Brothers trademark, and despite the nostalgic appeal of Sumner's voice, it's that flavor that dominates the track.
Even when the two build a track around a hip-hop snippet, as they do on "Hey Boy, Hey Girl" (which draws from the old-school classic "The Roof Is on Fire" by Rockmaster Scott and the Dynamic Three), the sample is overwhelmed by electronics. Yet for all their metronomic regularity, there's nothing rigid or mechanical about these beats. As always, the Chemicals infuse their tracks with an organic, band-oriented energy -- despite the fact that they're mostly machine-made grooves.
Maybe that's why the two work so well with a dyed-in-the-wool rocker like Oasis' Noel Gallagher. Gallagher recorded with the Brothers on their last album, adding vocals to "Setting Sun," which played off Oasis' Beatles fixation by looping a bit of the Fab Four's "Tomorrow Never Knows."
The three continue in that vein with the semi-psychedelic "Let Forever Be." But where their first collaboration emphasized the artificiality of the Beatles loop, "Let Forever Be" sounds more like a live-band jam, from the jittery stutter of the bass to the loose, slightly irregular drum syncopation. It's such a winning track that it's easy to forgive Gallagher for the grammatically awkward "How does it feel like?" chorus.
Chemical Brothers Surrender (Astralwerks 47610) Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 6/22/99