Bonobo's Migration is Echoes CD of the Month for February
Written by John Diliberto on January 27, 2017
What happens when an electronic producer starts recording and playing with a real band? If he’s talented, what will happen is what’s found on Bonobo’s latest album, Migration. It’s a haunting and seductive CD that is electronic in production but sourced from real musicians as well as samples. As Simon Green, who performs under the name Bonobo, said in one interview, “Rather than music made by machines, it is music made with machines.”
This isn’t something new for Green. He’s been building toward it since his first Bonobo album, Animal Magic in 2000, and it culminated with The North Borders studio album and subsequent North Borders Tour Live in 2014. In those live performances, Green didn’t sit alone, bopping behind computer screens and turntables that were rarely used. He had a 12-piece band that realized his studio creations.
Migration maintains that aesthetic by employing a wealth of musicians and a handful of singers who help him realize a music that is sensual, soulful and moving. Migration’s tunes often have a swaying groove, like the loose jazz mood of the title track, featuring Jon Hopkins playing acoustic piano alongside the freewheeling drumming of Jack Baker. Found-sound voices chirp in the background, over a theme that propels you forward, laced around a locked groove CD effect.
On the other hand, Green creates kinetic sound sculptures like “Outlier” with its funky rhythm and 70’s CTI keyboard sound. The song accelerates through layer upon layer of overlapping patterns and sequencer swirls, emerging in a Christmas-like cascade of cyclical bells and chimes. From the beginning he’s had a downtempo, collagist approach that probably owes more to musicians like Banco de Gaia and Future Sound of London than more contemporary EDM artists.
“Second Sun” might reveal some of the roots of Bonobo. He lifts the theme from Syrinx’s 1971 recording “December Angels.” I’m curious whether he discovered it on the Tumblers from the Vault collection that he lists in the credits, or if those pops and clicks on the sample are indeed from an original 1971 vinyl pressing of Long Lost Relatives. He takes the simple, pretty ostinato theme and spreads it across keyboards, double bass and strings, revealing even more haunting, mysterious dimensions.
Migration is primarily an instrumental album, even when sampling Pete Seeger’s poignant voice on “Grains,”since he uses his voice as an instrument. But Bonobo drops a few lovely conventional vocal tracks in there as well, including “Surface,” featuring the quavering vocals of Nicole Miglis from the band Hundred Waters. “No Reason” has a downtempo EDM groove featuring singer Nick Murphy (Chet Faker) and horns and reeds form an embracing bed for the forlorn “Break Apart,” featuring the duo Rhye on vocals.
Bonobo is a collagist at heart, bringing together orchestral, dance, world music, and found-sound as they suit his sonic desires. He taps the world music zone on “Bambro Koyo Ganda” and “Kerala.” On the former, he uses the Moroccan band Innov Gnawa for vocals. But on “Kerala” he turns the R&B song “Baby” by Brandy into an African chant, layered against a sequenced kora riff. But nowhere is the collage aesthetic better represented than by the looping, sampled vocal snippets of “Ontario.” Ouds and sequencers spiral against a syncopated rhythm that sounds like it’s falling apart, while miscellaneous buzzes and swirls cascade in the background. It’s a blast.
It’s also a contrast to the album closer, “Figures.” That song is based around a sample from Elkie Brooks’ “Just an Excuse” that he distends and reconfigures, turning this very spare breakup lament into a lush, yet even more desolate, elegy. It ends an album that can be joyful in its sonic adaptations on a thoughtful and melancholy note, especially when the mournful strings come in at the end.
Bonobo’s Migration is an album of soul travel as much as global travel. It’s also as fun as it is provocative.