For a brief snatch of time between 1996 and 1997, big beat techno actually threatened to make inroads into the American popular music scene. British acts like The Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, and Fatboy Slim got ample airplay and exposure via MTV. Big Beat anthems appeared in films and television shows. Repping for the States was The Crystal Method (Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland), whose debut album, Vegas, dropped in 1997. The album eventually went platinum and became one of the US’s best-selling electronic albums. The press immediately dubbed the duo the American Chemical Brothers, a tag they didn’t always love. However, they gladly took the momentum of their early success, releasing two more albums (2001’s Tweekend and 2004’s Grammy-nominated Legion of Boom), touring extensively, and launching the Community Service mix album series.
In the intervening decade, electronic music has crept into most popular music, while electronic acts have had less success. Now, The Crystal Method return with its fourth album, Divided By Night, a largely uneven effort that’s only superficially satisfying.
The first single, “Drown in the Now”, features guest vocals from Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu, whom the pair met while on tour. The song opens with an ominous, Eastern-tinged chant before the chorus merges with the tune’s martial beat: “Rock when I rip it when I’m rollin’ on clouds/Shout loud breathe in, won’t you drown in the now.” Unfortunately, like most songs on Divided, “Drown in the Now” is annoyingly repetitive, and Matisyahu’s normally dynamic voice sounds lackluster here. The song also highlights one of the problems with this album: the surfeit of guest stars.
Indie hip-hopper Justin Warfield and his wife Stefanie guest on ’80s rave-up “Kling to the Wreckage”. Unfortunately, like most guest vocals on this album, theirs are so over-treated that it’s hard to care much about the words they’re actually singing. A similar problem befalls “Black Rainbows” (also sung by Stefanie Warfield), which is an aimless ramble of a song. Likewise, “Slipstream” features more synths and dystopian vocals (this time by Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle). The instrumental “Blunts and Robots” stutters along, vaguely menacing, but without much purpose.
Somewhat incongruously, the album ends with the trip-hop lite ballad “Falling Hard”. Singer-songwriter Meiko provides the requisite haunting vocals, but the song feels out of place on an album that’s filled with faster-paced tracks.
However, Divided by Night does offer a few standouts, beginning with the title track, which sports a club-ready martial beat, orchestrated blips and bleeps, and a robotic voice that rumbles the chorus through the middle of the song. Another standout is the New Order-sounding “Dirty Thirty”, with its black gleaming sound and big beat sirens. The sleek, synth-driven “Smile?” recalls Incunabula-era Autechre, with breathy, mechanized vocals sailing over percussion. And Metric’s Emily Haines contributes vocals to the addiction narrative “Come Back Clean”, plaintively singing “Don’t play with drugs in your bloodstream/Don’t play with bugs for your bad dreams.” Here the guest vocals work because they’re not homogenized beyond recognition.
The sound of Divided by Night is chaotic: synthesizers whirl, sound effects bleep, voices are run through any number of machines. But it’s sonic busyness for its own sake, with no real point or purpose, and even the few highlights lack the urgency and dynamism of the group’s previous efforts. Or perhaps I’ve just become jaded by the fact that this type of music is now so commonplace in popular culture.
Divided by Night