Time was when you could bank on a new Chemical Brothers album every few years, like a gift transported from some muddy field or mega rave somewhere in the UK right to your cranium. They have spent the last two and half decades making music that often assaulted the senses, and live they’re an act that not only cracks your eardrums, but imprints images in your head that you may not always want to remember: their visuals are memorable, and often overwhelming. Just look at the video above (and add it to Do It Again (Live) for starters) and you get the picture. However, much as I love their music and have never had a Chems album that I’ve not liked, after 2010’s Born In The Echoes (itself a comparatively long five years after 2010’s Further) I wasn’t sure we’d even get another record from them.
Ed left them as a live outfit in 2015, and though visual collaborator Adam Smith admirably filled in – they were still incredible at Glastonbury in 2015, where I buzzed to them in their traditional Sunday night Other Stage slot – it felt like it may be the end of a road for a band that pretty much taught me how to dance in a field. In fact as a band, they’ve pretty much soundtracked – like anyone else of *cough* a certain age – my entire raving lifespan. Exit Planet Dust came out a whopping 24 (yes, TWENTY FOUR) years ago, but it blew my socks off then and still sounds absolutely crisp and fresh as it did then. Named after their previous Dust Brothers moniker (they reputedly nicked it from Beastie Boys producers, never thinking they’d ever be successful enough for it to matter) the album introduced us to many Chemical Brothers staples: acid 303s, growling leads, huge drum fills, sampled vocals, guitar licks and whooshing, discombobulating sounds and melodies. It wasn’t all eye-popping peak-time bangers though, because they have also made a name making more blissed-out tracks (see One Too Many Mornings from that very album) and seeking out collaborations with artists that fitted their unique template.
I say unique ironically, as one criticism through their hugely successful career has been an accusation – lazy, in my opinion – that they keep making the same record or that they’re unoriginal. I think that would be on firmer ground if a) anyone else consistently sounded like them and b) there wasn’t the great variation within their sound across all their albums. Some of the songs I most love from the last 30 years of electronic music (and that I still own on vinyl) are from the Chems: It Began In Afrika, Come With Us, The Golden Path, Hey Boy Hey Girl, Chemical Beats Out Of Control and The Private Psychedelic Reel (god, I’m getting nostalgic here) and of course their enduring work with Q-Tip, Galvanize and Go (two of my favourite tracks). They sounded amazing, their videos were groundbreaking (I still love watching Hey Boy, and thinking ‘oh, I used to dance there’) and live they were almost unrivalled in the electronic music scene. I’ve seen them live half a dozen times, and they’ve never disappointed. Though I still wish I’d been to Red Rocks.
So the news that Ed was back and a new album was coming left me with mixed feelings. Was it going to be up to their standard? And if not, should you bow out gracefully? We’re not getting any younger, and it’s a long time since we were freewheeling hedonists in the 90s and 00s. Of course, i shouldn’t have worried. Even if there is a little of the law of diminishing returns in play, a few listens to No Geography and it feels like slipping on an old pair of jeans. And I still get that Proustian rush back to some memorable live experiences as soon as those familiar sounds fill the ears. The fact they’ve made it with just the kit from their early albums feels a nice pushback against the over-compressed, quantized, perfectly melodic electronic music we’ve been bred into these days.
I hope it gets them some new fans too. I know they’re touring, and I know I’ll want to go. And part of me feels a bit sad that younger crew today won’t get to hear Hey Boy Hey Girl for the first time back when, and this ‘what the FUCK it this’? Whatever you may think of them, few have lasted as long as they have, and there’s a reason for that.
But more importantly, what do you think?