So, album number four for the mighty, the undeniably influential, and downright talented Jon More and Matt Black. It’s actually been eight years since their last studio release, but well, they have been running Ninja Tune, Big Dada, and creating VJamm, their proprietary Audio Visual mixing software, among many other things in the meantime. So we’ll let them off.
And it doesn’t really matter how long you’ve been away, if when you return you make it worthwhile for everybody. And that’s certainly the case with Sound Mirrors, an incredibly broad, often intense, and always-enjoyable listen. It’s even been suggested that it’s their finest work to date, but we’ll let you make up your own minds. Well, after we’ve tried to persuade you with our own opinion that is! We also got the chance to speak to Matt Black at some length, and you can read the interview here.
Perhaps because of their experiences running a record label as diverse as Ninja, it’s helped hone their skills in terms of sourcing talent. Virtually every track on the album features a different vocalist or collaborator, each applied adroitly to the given musical situation. And when each track is so different from the last in style, when coupled with the different contributors, the breadth increases tenfold. Sound Mirrors is nothing if not a rich audio experience from start to finish, whether it’s in a house, rock, or dub style at any individual moment.
So to the music. Man in a Garage is the opener, with John Matthias’s warm, but laid-back vocal enveloping the pops and sparkles of the beat that clicks along beneath, swayed gently but noticeably along by a walking bassline. It’s enigmatic and abstract, yet hypnotically catchy at the same time.
From this relatively gentle start, we move into one of the more upbeat tracks on the album, and a personal favourite. True Skool starts with a scratched up, sliding sample of some traditional Indian vocals, replete with tabla, and is all sucked through a hip hop filter. The vocal sample works in the same compelling way as the one in classic track, Timber did, but this is a more driven affair. Not least because Roots Manuva is at the helm, and his unique vocal stylings are as gripping as ever. As we learn, it’s not whether you’re old or new skool that’s important, as long as you’re true skool.
The tempo increases again thanks to the perpetual motion of bass and percussion that is Just for the Kick. Annette Peacocks’ vocals here are spoken rather than sung, reflecting abstractly on the cult of celebrity and other contemporary themes, but provide the ideal companion for the thrusting house futurism that Coldcut still do so extremely well. In the verses she sounds distant and cold, and as the music builds to the chorus, so does her delivery, melding finally for the ‘just for the kick’ phrase. We can’t wait to hear this in a club. Loud and dark.
Then it’s time for a relative breather, but one of house music’s most memorable vocalists, Robert Owens, contributes to one of the standout moments on an album that’s already extremely good. Walk a While in My Shoes has the feel of a song that could have been written over a decade earlier, but still feels fresh, timeless, even. It’s epic and reflective, with a melody that worms its way down your headphones into your brain. It’s a classic uplifting dance track in the vein of People Hold On, but with that melancholy side that only a great vocalist like Robert can pull off. In fact after seeing Robert and Mpho (pronounced Empo) Skeef singing a rousing version of that Lisa Stansfield and Coldcut ‘standard’ at the album launch, it’s clear that Jon and Matt were attempting something in that vein. And you know what, it really works, even ending with a contrapuntal rhythm section that could be lifted from a Steve Reich composition, and showing how Coldcut understand better than ever where pop and art collide.
And the great stuff just keeps on coming. Mr. Nichols is different again, this time with Saul Williams’ authoritative but gentle voice pervading the bleeping and pulsing arrangement beneath, which then builds in the gaps like an electronic wave. By contrast, Everything is Under Control is more rock than dance, with Jon Spencer (of Blues Explosion fame) pushing the fuzzed up bass through with just the right combination of sneer and confidence.
Then it’s back to house again for Mpho Skeef’s rousing Island Earth, who you may already know from the Bugz in the Attic track, Booty La La. You’ll certainly be hearing more from her anyway if you don’t. Her sassiness almost shakes from the speakers onto the dancefloor, or whatever floor you’re on at the time, as Coldcut build a throbbing bass that is as much felt as heard.
Frankly there’s more, but you probably get the picture, and need to discover it for yourself. Coldcut are on top form, and perhaps the best form they’ve ever been in, really putting their experience into practice. If you’re even slightly interested in the past, present, and future of dance, and dance that isn’t bothered whether it’s the latest thing, just whether it’s good, then Sound Mirrors is an album you must own. It might still be January, but if this doesn’t remain among our top albums of the year come next December, we’ll eat Coldcut’s hats.