Live review: The Chemical Brothers at the Hollywood Bowl
In a time when practically every song on pop radio warrants glow sticks and amateur pharmaceuticals, what’s the place for old rave O.G.s like the Chemical Brothers?
For a decade starting in the mid-’90s, the duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons stayed precisely one step ahead of their audience, introducing new permutations of their big-beat electronica at exactly the right moments to send them up the charts. Their deft splices of electronic music subgenres such as house, techno, garage and ambient defined the decade in U.K. dance and pop music, and anyone who remembers when raves used to be scary experiences in distant fields can thank the Chemical Brothers for mainstreaming the subculture.
But then music did a funny thing and caught up to them. An hour on Power 106 FM will yield a dozen fussy, euphoric pop and rap songs indebted to the Brothers, and the original article had to endure a few slow years creatively in the late aughts when they relied heavily on collaborations. Fortunately, the Brothers’ new album, “Further,” is a welcome return to their original thrills of smeared-up filters, sinister synth stabs and skull-crushing drums, and at Sunday’s uncharacteristically physical edition of KCRW’s World Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, they found the right home for that pioneering sound decades after its debut.
Although their setup was relatively spartan — a curved desk of controllers, a wall-sized bank of outboard synths, a projection screen and a couple of laser fans were the only things onstage — it left room for the new songs to overwhelm.
The major-key ambient tidepool of “Another World” careened from gauzy textures to brutal squalls before dropping a minimalist and blissy house beat. The single “Swoon” wrung every drop of stadium-rock power from its absurdly catchy lead riff. Wrapping up with the two-chord krautrock clatter of “K+D+B,” the pair toed a powerful line between the melancholy melody and swells of New Order-ish post-punk transcendence.
Watching the Brothers weave these into their older numbers only bolstered “Further’s” potency in context. An ecstatic cut such as the woozy, Daft Punk-indebted “Star Guitar” or the madcap jungle of “Setting Sun” gave the set sonic context in a long career, underscoring how difficult it is to make timeless electronica.
The Chemical Brothers depended on sounds first and foremost at this set — their albums have featured singers such as Beth Orton and Noel Gallagher, but this set used vocal melodies as incidental calls-to-arms — and dance music moves so fast it’s possible to make a relevant, necessary record that sounds anachronistic within a few years. But it’s a testament to the vision of a cut such as 1999’s “Hey Boy, Hey Girl” that it feels like it could come out tomorrow, yet still completely embodies the era from which it came.
Visually, they kept it sleek, splitting the film projections between the steelier atmospherics of recent work and cracked candy colors of first-wave rave. There were surely a few thousand people who went home with nightmares from that intermittent projection of a cackling demon clown. But the Brothers’ long, thrilling turn did one of the hardest things possible in the perpetual-motion-machine of dance music — it proved that you can define a decade sonically and still have a vision of a path to the future.
The Montreal fromage-funk duo Chromeo took a rather opposite approach before them, mining the billowing yacht rock of their heroes Hall & Oates with a backbone of Gap Band swing and decadent disco giddy enough to give them permission to use that talkbox. Yacht’s droll, artier opening take on ESG’s downtown punk-funk called the shot for the night — even a restless, ambitious genre such as electronica has a long history to cull from and make new again.
-- August Brown
Photo: Chemical Bros. Credit: Gary Friedman / LA Times