"Black Light" (Cooking Vinyl) -- 3 STARS
“Are you ready to fall?” asks “Look Me in the Eye Sister,” the opening track of “Black Light,” Groove Armada’s sixth studio album. The lyric sums up the risk the band has taken on this new LP, abandoning their defining brand of filthy, glossy dance-pop and distancing themselves from their usual glow-stick-waving clientele. Instead, British duo Andy Cato and Tom Findlay offer up a more restrained, mature product, encompassing much of the greater subtlety and diversity of the whole world of dance music. Though this move carries with it the danger that Groove Armada will fall from the commercial success they have always experienced, by challenging themselves the band have produced a thoroughly intriguing album.
“Black Light” blends 1980s-inspired power chords, driving rhythms and synth waves worthy of French electronic composer Jean-Michel Jarre. Coupled with more traditional synth-pop flourishes, these elements create an uplifting, resounding musical landscape. However, it would seem that in their attempts to detach themselves from their old shtick of bouncing house music, the group have left behind a little of the infectious melodies that made them famous. But the impressive—and at times touching—musical flourishes on “Black Light” are well deserving of praise.
“Look Me in the Eye Sister” is one of the album’s true gems. An understated rock song, its heavy guitar riff is punctuated with a bristling synth energy that climbs toward a rousing climax, successfully exploiting the sultry, dulcet tones of guest vocalist Jess Larrabee. The album contains many such collaborations, which successfully harness the youthful musical energy of a diverse range of artists, including Nick Littlemore from Empire of the Sun, and British pop superstar Will Young.
Other examples of beautiful songcraft include “Cards to Your Heart” and the album’s lead single, “Paper Romance,” both of which exhibit a defiant sophistication and verve. “Paper Romance,” in particular, bristles with a beguiling otherworldliness; a combination of haunting vocals, a menacing synth background and some uplifting xylophone flourishes. This is the new Groove Armada at its most unique and bold, and progress with a subconscious, bouncing musicality; a seemingly more refined, updated version of their past house identity.
All of these changes, however, fail to produce anything of the caliber of Groove Armada’s more youthful electro-pop rivals like MGMT and Passion Pit. Whilst the dark melody and synth saturation of “Paper Romance” conspire to create something quite heartfelt and expressive, it is often quite evident throughout the album’s progression that Groove Armada is distinctly out of its comfort zone.
This is particularly clear on the pre-release single “I Won’t Kneel.” While this track manages to capture some of the glamorous, 1980s female-driven rock it strives for, it ultimately progresses with no distinct purpose, lacking the sex appeal so crucial in such anthems—providing a musical androgyny not quirky enough to be endearing, and not striking enough to be engaging.
The album’s biggest problem is that many of its songs feature such a chronic lack of melody as to be almost painful to listen to. Songs such as the laborious “Warsaw” and the ironically titled “Shameless” display a monotonous repetition, with an absence of intrigue that ultimately fails to engage. These songs exhibit what is occasionally disappointing about this bold departure—monochrome lack of imagination, which culminates in a bland, series of self-aware songs towards the album’s conclusion.
As such, “Black Light” often feels decidedly uncomfortable, like an unnerving intrusion upon a more youthful indie-electronic music scene. Perhaps the album’s greatest downfall is that it fails to target any coherent fan base, lacking the upbeat bounce that has inspired intense adoration amongst the ecstatic masses at festivals across the globe. It would seem that this shameless sense of fun has been discarded somewhere in the production process. However, this new sound marks a distinct progression in Groove Armada’s development; a refreshed musical vision that emerges during “Black Light’s” most thrilling sections, and will hopefully blossom further in Groove Armada’s future releases.