SMALL BLACK - New Chain

by Simon Sandison Rating:8.5 Release Date:2010-10-25

There are some albums that seem to so thoroughly encompass a season that it feels as though it would be cheating to listen to them outside of that three month window in which they are most at home. For whatever reason, this is particularly true of autumn, and the mind races with albums that are so thoroughly orange and crispy that I find myself returning to them every October having put them out to pasture for the better part of the year.

Radiohead's Kid A is the best example of this, R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People is another. More recently Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio and even The xx's eponymous debut from last year evoke a feeling that is inescapably bound up with the unboxing of warm coats and unfurling of scarves. There is absolutely no doubt that New Chain takes its place among this category, defying its own PR classification of 'chill-wave' (which means, more or less, nothing) and instead taking up the genre-spanning label of 'autumnal'.

Let's be clear, this definition transcends anything so simple as release date. There is something fundamental about the atmosphere created in these albums that succinctly manages to encapsulate the nuances of a season, and if there is something that Small Black are not short of it is atmosphere. Immediately the opening track 'Camouflage' washes over the listener and almost serves to numb all but the aural senses. The depth of sound and ethereally distorted vocals are enough to dominate the attention while remaining ungraspable.

This depth continues throughout New Chain as the persistently bass-heavy backing sits below synths that float and whistle and vocals that dip in and out elusively. The sound at its finest moments - during 'Hydra', for example - builds gloriously in a way that is almost reminiscent of Phil Spector records, such is the quality of the production here. There always seems to be too much happening in the record to pin down any one part, but the resulting product is straightforward in its magnificence.

This all reaches a climax during the last track 'Invisible Grid' in which the depth and richness of sound that has preceded culminates in a gradual build of noise that fades as soon as it has reached its peak. It is a vague and almost unfulfilling end that is still oddly befitting this album: it promises more than it gives.

Perhaps this is the defining feature of 'autumn-ness'. A superficial melancholy gives way to the promise of more; the death triggered by autumn promises the eventual life of spring. Equally, the haunting atmosphere that runs right through New Chain is offset by the disco qualities of the overlying synths. This is no more true than in the wonderful 'Search Party'. It is an absolute gem that takes its cues from 80s electronica, blending the unabashed joy of disco with a darker undertone in a way that takes its prompts from Tears for Fears and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

There is something pleasing in the realisation that a new band have engendered a sense of familiarity before an album is even halfway through without straying into repetitiveness. Small Black certainly manage that here, though there may be some questions as to whether their sound is distinct or adventurous enough to support more albums without some degree of reinvention. While New Chain is indeed excellent, it lacks any single track that could be said to define it or stand out from the rest. Perhaps, for others, this is not an issue, but it is difficult to see where Small Black could take this - 'Crisp 100' is the album's only low point, and serves as a warning of the flatness that could take over if left unchecked.

These are problems, though, for the future. For the time being, Small Black have arrived with and album that is beautiful, thoughtful and overwhelming.

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