The beauty of Bonobo’s material lies in its ability to translate emotion into a music score, regardless of instrument, tempo, lyrics, or influencing genre. After 12 years releasing albums, he has become rather adept at it, and while The North Borders shows no giant leap in technical accomplishment, it documents an organic evolution in sound, with deeper layers to discover and unwrap.
When moonlighting as Bonobo, Simon Green – a British musician, producer and DJ also known as Barakas – sits sonically between labelmates Mr Scruff and Cinematic Orchestra. The North Borders, his fifth album, is not dissimilar from 2010’s Black Sands, but channels more warmth, texture and versatility into its offerings. It also repeats his knack for unearthing and showcasing new talent and reminding us of gems away from the limelight.
Illustrating that very gift is Grey Reverend – Brooklyn-based singer songwriter LD Brown – who is given a spot on the echoing, stripped back, post-dubstep beats of opener, First Fires. It’s a minimalist start and he brings gravelly, soft vocals to a metaphor for re-kindled love. Bonobo’s work with Erykah Badu brings her luxurious vocal to Heaven For The Sinner – a torch bearer for the album where deconstructed hip hip-cum-jazz is a good marriage for her audible neo-soul roots, that circle a harp and piano.
Meanwhile, there is time for up-and-coming artists in the shape of London-born ‘rising star’ Szjerdene, whose vocals lend a pigeon-toe or two to Towers and Transits. The former’s seedy keyboards and stripped back trip hop contrast her innocent voice, while the same is true of the latter, where she pleads, “Stay here with me,” among a dance between the manufactured and orchestral. Green also features Sweden’s Cornelia on Pieces, closing the album with her layered, weaving, two-part vocal.
Calling back to Bonobo’s and Ninja Tune’s jazz roots, Emkay twists this with garage and low, pulsing basslines. The vocal is incidental, but no less an intrinsic part of the track, edging it away from the headphones, into night out territory. Showing he can also do glitch, Don’t Wait starts with mismatched percussion, its wobbling loops and mathematically timed chimes referencing the precision of Dan Snaith’s Caribou. There’s a natural flow to the track where watery ebbs mingle with muted techno and garage beats.
Slowing the pace down, Green backs Antenna with a house metronome and angelic vocal sighs, relying on cylinder music box notes to create loops among Lemon Jelly-esque childlike melodies. Those tempos are further unravelled with the trip hop-backed Sapphire, Jets and Ten Tigers; each beautiful lessons in blending the real with the electronic.
But surely Bonobo’s triumph is Cirrus, its four-on-the-floor beat dusted with twinkling percussion and woody notes that hypnotise through clever use of repetitions, and a well-honed build and release technique. Across the near-six minutes there is not much deviation from the basic equation, but the volume and intensity undulate, introducing drums and heavier basslines progressively to a clockwork, percussion metronome. It’s a sublime demonstration of how to use pressure to generate sentiment in music, switching in this instance between intrigue and euphoria, while keeping the heartbeat the same.
In The North Borders, Green has cultivated rich, perfectly formed textures, but not only that, he’s injected feeling into its roots. Here, the real boon over and above his previous work is the use of classical influences to create more depth in sound, yielding further delights with each listen. The result is not, unlike many of his peers, a symphony of interlinking tracks, but a collection of individuals that, together, tell a unified story of emotion.