It’s been 16 years since 1999’s Rhythm and Stealth
and a hell of a lot has changed in British dance culture since. Garage died a death only for its ghost to be resurrected by Burial, dubstep momentarily ruled the world and the deep house peddled out by acts like Disclosure and Duke Dumont is now topping charts. The announcement of a new Leftfield album was met equally with anticipation and reservation. Would it simply be an attempt by another dance dinosaur to cash in on a new generation of ravers? On their new effort Leftfield has shed original duo member Paul Daley and with him the more progressive influences on their sound, such as dub and reggae, that made their first two albums stand head and shoulders above the rest in a genre that notoriously struggles with the LP format. What we’re left with on Alternative Light Source
is simply a technically accomplished record that just about pulls of the balance between functioning perfectly for the dance floor and also offering enough variations in mood and texture to make it an enjoyable home listening experience.
‘Bad Radio’ gets things going quickly enough with its opening glistening pads and gliding square waves before dropping into a hard hitting distorted bass line and a drum rhythm that recalls the good electro of the late 90’s and early 00’s, such as the output of German label Clone Records or James Stinson’s seminal project The Other People Place. Leftfield have always been noted for their ‘leftfield’ and inventive choices when it comes to guest vocalists and this album is no exception. The understated vocals of TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on ‘Bad Radio’ are reminiscent of Moderat. It’s expansively cinematic and emotive, almost dour, whilst still managing to work on a purely physical level.
‘Universal Everything’ offers up a more straight forward 4/4 beat, with sparsely used synth lines and textured vocal samples, the song feels like it will run out of steam way before it reaches the end of its 7 minute length, only for it to erupt as a peak-set banger. Whether it’s grime or dubstep, many of the developments that have happened in electronic and dance music in the UK since Leftfield’s sophomore effort have reflected the claustrophobic spaces of the inner city. In contrast the reverb-drenched synths here leave little space for ambiguity. This is music meant for huge spaces, used to fill festivals, warehouses or even arenas.
In general there’s little reference to the changes that dance music has undergone in the last five or so years, with the trap referencing ‘Storm Ends’ being the sole exception. All the tropes of the genre are here: the 808 drum beat, skittering high high-hats and the tongue clicking tuned percussion sounds are all present. Although the addition of delicate chords add much-needed light and darkness that’s absent from the cartoonish machismo much EDM style trap endlessly churns out.
‘Head and Shoulders’ seems like an obvious and rather self-conscious attempt at an updated version of the John Lydon featuring ‘Open Up’ on their debut Leftism. To replace him Leftfield have reeled in Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson, who has had plenty of comparisons made between his inflected Midlands drawl and Lydon’s own idiosyncratic vocal delivery. The track credits Sleaford Mods as collaborators but there seems little evidence of beat maker Andrew Fearn on the track. Without Fearns’ gritty naïve instrumentals, the pristinely polished production only serves to take the bite out of the Williamson’s voice, which isn’t helped by his slow, lethargic flow instead of his usually short-breathed ranting. His lyrics feel more like a game of word association rather than making any kind of cohesive sense but his enunciated “Chicken in the basket” is weirdly phonetically satisfying.
The almost beatless album title track uses a folky picked guitar line and at first feels slightly out of place until it suddenly plunges with a vinyl scratch into album highlight ‘Shaker Obsession’. Building polyrhythms out of clattering noises anchored to a bludgeoning bass line and kick drum, ‘Shaker Obsession’ doesn’t feel indebted to any particular decade or subgenre, instead choosing to rely on what sounds produce the biggest effect.
The choice of Ofei on album closer ‘Levitate For You’ was the most pleasantly surprising guest vocalist on the album. After releasing a handful of promising James Blake style, vocoder-laden soul cuts in 2013 and 2014 the artist disappeared off the radar. Here his voice is much more low-key than the bombast of his own tracks, but Leftfield compliments this with effective atmospherics and economically used bass.
Since Leftfield disbanded in the early 2000’s, indie and guitar music went on to dominate much of the decade, but the popularity of dance music has come full circle. Its big business now, in a way it hasn’t been since its 90’s heyday. Alternative Light Source sets out to capitalise on this; it’s loud as hell and doesn’t feel too fussed about trying to catch up with a new generation of producers. Barnes knows what works and he’s stuck with it. And sometimes that’s enough.