Monday, December 24, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #221 - Bonobo - Black Sands

Bonobo’s record Black Sands was released in 2010 and is his fourth record. Issued on the Ninja Tune label it shows a surprising amount of sonic depth. The first track, "Prelude," introduces a variety of instruments and develops a rich theme with lovely orchestration. The sophistication of the orchestration quickly informs us that our ears are in for a treat. When I think of electronic music, rarely does a product this polished, refined, or intricate come to mind. I’d love to turn you on to Black Sands!
"Kiara," the second track, is an interesting bit of layering in which the song progresses and evolves by combining and featuring different parts. At times it will expose aspects to allow certain parts to be featured and for the song to evolve. It begins with a suspended tone and a shimmering electronic tone struck together, these tones hover and the pitch bends just a moment before the beat eases in with the bass line. At times the bass and drums are faded out while Bonobo introduces slight variations, or different combinations of melody and texture. Keeping track of what is happening becomes a pleasant game for the ear. What combinations have happened? What change will occur next? It also takes what could be potentially overwhelming for the ear and thins it out, letting him control the tension and release by subtly orchestrating these themes and variations. "Kong," the third song, while having different melodic content than "Kiara" could be a different result of a strict set of the same procedural guidelines that both songs seem to follow. Once again Bonobo shows us textures, motifs, and snippets of recurring melodies that layer and combine in different aspects to develop and release tension.
On "Eyesdown" the vocalist Andreya Triana has a chance to take over. She has a relaxed, calm vibe that fits over a hazy and shimmering keyboard line and bass progression. This simple chord progression shows off Triana’s vocal skill and Bonobo’s production skills. While the overall production is cloudy and thick, the percussion is clear and punctuated by cymbal bell hits, snare rim shots, and cymbal slides that produce haunting and shrieking sounds, all subtly buried in the mix.
"El Toro" starts out with a semi-bossa nova groove and introduces a melody fragmented between violin and different wind instruments. The melody thickens into a bigger horn and orchestral section as the phrase builds. It repeats, seemingly folding in on itself, gaining complexity and momentum. This then yields to horn hits trading with percussion breaks. Eventually the rhythm section gives way and the strings and horns are left in an ostinato pattern exposed, repeating and briefly creating a quick transition to the next song. It is an interesting effect, by exposing the horns and strings and removing the rhythm section the listener's ear is drawn to it, and the introduction motif of the next song is quickly inserted. It acts as a palate cleanser, or an audio redirection.
"We Could Forever" is the next song. I think this title speaks to the groove of the song. It wants to put the listener in a place where they are satisfied and do not want to leave. The song starts out with a high-hat pattern and recurring guitar riff. A deep bass progression that eases us thru the tune is introduced, along with other samples. These atmospheric samples of reverb-drenched sax and wood flute over a bed of Rhodes keyboard and guitar are great. Enough variation is used so that the ear is not bored but the vibe is not ruined.
"All In Forms" introduces a sample of Pisces' song "Elephant Eyes" and elaborates upon it. A vocal sample from the Six Boys In Trouble song "Why Can’t I Get It Too?" is also repeated through the song. These elements seem to be the framework on which other sonic explorations are hung. Shimmering pads are panned to one side of a stereo mix, faint percussion fades in and out, and suspended tones are experimented with. It seems to be variation upon a central theme, with certain unifying plot lines that guide the song, keeping the mood and context intact while allowing for sonic exploration.
The next two songs once again feature Andreya Triana. "The Keeper" begins with xylophone and drums in a laid back groove. Bass and guitar are added, establishing an impressive polyphony that is catchy and restrained. As the singing enters, the xylophone and guitar drop out to momentarily to feature the vocals. It is this level of detail and production finesse that makes these songs fun and rewarding repeated listening. New details expose themselves with additional study. Andreya Triana has a great voice for this contemporary R&B style. "Stay The Same" is a more straightforward song rather than some of the theme-and-develop pieces that are on the album. This shows Bonobo’s ability to compose in a more traditional verse/chorus/verse/chorus format while featuring a vocalist, rather than the theme-and-variation content which makes up much of this record.
"Animals" starts out with a light cymbal rim hits and is joined by a guitar ostinato and a bass clarinet playing a melody on top of it. Bass joins in next, adding up to a really unique and great texture. This song unfolds like many on the record, but around the 3:30 mark it stops to rebuild in a slightly different feel. Before it a was 4/4 time signature and it becomes more of a 12/8 triplet-heavy, Afro-jazz feel with an oboe solo. This eventually gives way to drums and screeching waves of sound which fade out.
Black Sands becomes in essence Program Music, or music that strives to render an extra-musical narrative. Yes, you have the musical themes, interesting instrumentation, and development, all done excellently, but what is it saying? It becomes up to the listener to interpret. What does the imagery of the sounds make you feel? For me it evokes emotions and questions - I wonder what Black Sands meant to Bonobo. I feel melancholy and longing, I wonder where the Black Sands are, I wonder when they were. I think that anytime an artist can produce this level of emotional reaction their endeavor has been a success. I’d Love To Turn You On to Black Sands and I hope you take the time to check it out if it’s not already in your collection.
 - Doug Anderson

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