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The Chemical Brothers - No Geography Music Album Reviews

Blending psychedelic sensory overload with riotous club bangers, the shape-shifting electronic duo’s ninth album is their most entertaining in years.

The molecular structure of the Chemical Brothers’ various albums has typically taken one of two forms: brash, psychedelic odysseys in retro rave, or scattered forays into pop-rock and hip-hop assisted by aging rappers, wispy folkies, and Brit-rock flavors of the month from back when NME was still in print. The pros and cons of both approaches are evident in Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’ three-decade career. The Revolver-esque end-of-a-century blowout Surrender aside, the boombastic rocktronica of the duo’s early output now smacks of a certain aggressive staleness; as for the Chem Bros’ dismal, collab-heavy 2000s run—which included songs about Osama Bin Laden and dancing like a salmon, as well as an aptly titled slice of miserabilia called “No Path to Follow”—the less said, the better.


One of this decade’s most pleasant surprises, then, has been watching Rowlands and Simons achieve the type of critical redemption that’s proven all too rare for survivors of the big-beat and electronica fads that presaged EDM. (The duo’s proximity to such fleeting trends has often overshadowed their deeper relationship to dance-music history; legend has it that Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” only took off as a single after Rowlands and Simons started airing it out in DJ sets.) Further, from 2010, effectively reconfirmed the pair as masters of beat-based transcendence—it might be the Chem Bros’ best album to date—while 2015’s Born in the Echoes threw indie and indie-adjacent heroes like Beck, St. Vincent, and Cate Le Bon into a trance-inducing spin cycle, the resulting wash possessing a satisfyingly spotless sheen.

So where do you go when you finally prove that you’ve mastered both of your established creative approaches? To throw yourself a proper rager, of course. No Geography, the duo’s ninth full-length, is their most party-hardy album since the millennium-flattening swarm of Surrender. They’re back in full-on psychedelia territory again, with Norwegian synth-pop singer AURORA their main collaborator here, but despite being a studio production, No Geography also recalls their 2012 live album and concert film Don’t Think, as good a reproduction of their overwhelming stage show as couch-surfers could ask for. There’s crowd noise all over the new album’s 47-minute runtime, bursts of laughter and distant cheering that crest and swell amid the punchy synths and roiling percussive attacks.

It’s not too far-fetched to claim that No Geography is the most fun the pair have sounded this decade; Further’s pleasures were of the brainy variety, while Born in the Echoes mainly alternated between sinister and solemn sonic motifs. The shape that No Geography takes, comparatively, is often reminiscent of the Avalanches’ cut-and-paste approach to blissful beat music—the seamless, bongo-driven transition from opener “Eve of Destruction” to the disco-stabbed “Bango” is a dead ringer for the easy slide between Since I Left You’s title track and “Stay Another Season.” At their best, the Avalanches make every unearthed sound shine like a freshly opened toy on Christmas morning, and a similar sense of sampledelic discovery is streaked across No Geography’s funhouse framework.

While Chem Bros have long been known for memorable pop-leaning singles, the last 15 years have seen them coming up short in that department—a room-for-improvement category in which No Geography provides ample course-correction. “Got to Keep On” may be a streamlined riff on their indelible Come With Us single “Star Guitar,” but what a gorgeous riff it is, with cotton-candy vocal sighs and chiming bells that could loop for hours without growing stale. The rowdy “We’ve Got to Try” is one of the most satisfying club bangers Rowlands and Simons have dreamed up in ages, with a serpentine acid squelch delivering the type of buzzsaw drop that French brutalist Gesaffelstein failed to provide on his latest; paired with its sentimental courageous-canine video treatment, it’s the rare Chem Bros crowd-pleaser that stands to trigger the tear ducts.

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Still, despite featuring some of the strongest and most straightforward singles of their surprisingly successful last decade, No Geography is best consumed as a front-to-back experience. Most of its 10 songs flow into each other as separate suites, the opening trio forming a perpetual build not unlike Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun before blasting off with the splashy drums and Drive-redolent synths of the title track. The centerpiece and closer—respectively, the lovely yawns of “Gravity Drops” and the squiggly comedown “Catch Me I’m Falling”—exist as breathers amid No Geography’s perpetual exhilaration.

Even given song titles like “Mad as Hell” and “Free Yourself,” this is not a political album by any means, but No Geography’s cartoon cover art—a tank facing off against pink clouds assembling in the shape of a face, at once goofy and menacing—feels timely nevertheless. Thirty years in, the Chemical Brothers are still digging their own purely escapist sonic rabbit holes. At a time of great cultural and global insecurity, there's never been a more tempting time to get lost in their sensory overload.


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