A Familiar Sound: Calming Energy
By now, Simon Green (aka Bonobo) is a household name within ambient music circles. He initially came to the scene over fifteen years ago with his debut release, Animal Magic. Since then Green has released a slew of LPs and collaborated with a wide range of artists. In the process, he has contributed to the recent surge of downtempo music, as his unique take on the genre has garnered him a rabid fan base of listeners. Green’s music often infuses the intensely repetitive song structures and dense layering of minimalist music with subdued, yet hypnotic, electronic beats. This is not groundbreaking in of itself, as these more rhythmic approaches to ambient music have come to define the downtempo genre in general; however, Bonobo furthers this stylistic integration, adopting jazz and world music influences. By incorporating these more organic musical traditions, Green has managed to craft a sound that avoids every feeling canned – as is the case with many a DJs – yet still retains the rhythmic allure of electronic dance music.
Longtime fans will be pleased to know that the most recent entry to Bonobo’s catalog, Migration, remains faithful to this genre-bending aesthetic that has come to define his work. “7th Sevens” offers a rhythmically engrossing track, featuring synth harmonies, brass figures and an upbeat, highly active percussive section that is reminiscent of his 2014 single, “Flashlight.” “Break Apart,” on the other hand, sees Green team up with the LA-based duo Rhye, evoking memories of some of Bonobo’s soulful collaborations with R&B singers such as Erykah Badu, Andreya Triana and Bajka. The combination of Milosh’s velvety vocals and the natural acoustic tones – i.e. harps, piano, trumpets – found in the instrumental section serves as a nice counterpoint to Green’s highly processed and digitized beats. Finally, “Ontario” is perhaps the most nostalgia-tinged track of the record, strongly invoking the percussive dynamism and atmospheric melancholy of Northern Borders with its pounding, sixteenth-note drum rolls and minor key progression. For those who merely wish to relive the excitement of Bonobo’s past work, “Ontario” is a standout. The pulsating percussive section is enriched by some of Bonobo’s trademark sounds, including a sitar, gorgeous synth swells and even some particularly jazzy major seventh chords towards the song’s final moments. And in true Bonobo fashion, “Ontario” very gradually builds to one rousing climax to keep its listeners engaged.
Yet Migration offers more than pure nostalgia. While the album clearly isn’t a stylistic departure from Northern Borders, it makes a few subtle tweaks to prevent it from ever feeling truly derivative. For one, Migration generally takes a more delicate approach towards rhythm, as tracks like the eponymous album opener, “Migration,” “Grains” and “Figures” establish a much slower pacing, instead showcasing their beautifully-layered, reverb-soaked soundscapes. “Second Sun” even does away with the rhythm section entirely, as Green replaces his signature percussive hooks with melancholic guitar/piano arpeggios, upright bass stabs, beautiful string swells and some subtle electronica, of course. In doing so, he captures the sound of a full orchestra in what is one of the more elegant tracks on this record – and, perhaps, his entire catalog. Later on, in one of Migration’s more daring compositional endeavors, Green employs the talents of the NY-based collective Innov Gnawa on “Bambro Koyo Ganda.” In a true fusion of musical cultures, the guest artists bring the Moroccan Gnawa tradition to the fold, blending call-and-response singing and krakeb percussion with Bonobo’s highly polished compositional style. This results in one of the more soulful, expressive moments on the record. Finally, for those craving something a little more energetic and radio-friendly, “Surface” certainly fits the bill with Nicole Miglis’s glimmering vocals paired with Bonobo’s equally impressive production. (Lead single “Kerala” achieves similar radio potential.)
Of course, not all of Migration’s aesthetic changes are for the better. When Green strays from more organic instrumentation, his music inevitably suffers. This is the case with “Outlier,” which features an exciting electronic symphony, accompanied by a strong backbeat. Yet the brazen inexpressiveness of the synth arpeggio that runs through the majority of the track’s near-eight minute runtime grows tiresome after a while. Fortunately, the outro treats us to a lush harp sample – which becomes a reoccurring motif on Migration. The similarly lengthy “No Reason” runs into similar issues. Its steady, unimaginative kickdrum-snare beat resembles something from a generic club dance track. And, perhaps in a futile attempt to compensate for the instrumental section’s lack of emotion, guest vocalist Nick Murphy croons his way through the track. Yet, Green is even able to inject this rather uninspiring collaboration with some exciting musical sparks, introducing new sonic textures, including some powerful sub-bass synthesizers during the song’s climax.
All things considered, Migration is a fantastic addition to an already impressive catalog. Fans who demand Radiohead-esque transformations from album to album may be disappointed. However, those who expect a more reasonable artistic progression will certainly be more than satisfied with Bonobo’s latest work. Green has instilled his unique, multi-layered sound with subtle, new flavors. Yet he still is careful to maintain the compositional aesthetic that has always described his work, built around moody, slowly-evolving sonic portraits that pull from a wide range of genres. For this reason, those who have never been inspired by Bonobo’s work would probably be similarly unimpressed by Migration. But for those who consider themselves fans of his catalog – or downtempo in general – Migration is a necessary addition to your music library.