It’s hard to believe that this is Matt Black and Jonathan More’s first album for nearly 10 years. Out of the hundreds of new record labels that surfaced from the 1990s dance boom only a handful have survived, even less prospered, yet Coldcut’s Ninja Tune is most certainly alive, kicking and still releasing extraordinary music on a regular basis – check out Blockhead‘s masterful Downtown Science for a recent example.
For all those Ninja devotees out there Sound Mirrors is something of an event. Unfortunately those hoping that the boys would find yet more ways to revolutionise dance music will be disappointed. Younger ninjas, they who bask in the label’s avant-jazz experimentalism without understanding its history, may also be shocked by just how radio-friendly it is. Those caveats aside, though, this is a fun, varied and defiantly old-school record which is pure Coldcut.
To ellaborate, let’s imagine that Coldcut had actually invented some sonic mirrors. They pointed them at their entire musical (and political) history, bounced the reflections into a mixing desk and invited an impressive array of guests to vocalise over the top – whilst they pulled Ninja poses in the background in a playful manner. That’s pretty much what Sound Mirrors does.
Songs like True Skool, Everything Is Under Control and Walk A Mile are straight out old-school Coldcut. True Skool is the most playful of the lot, a confident vocal from Roots Manuva almost sounding like Rakim himself as it dances over bouncing tablas and old-school ravers horns. Walk a Mile has vocals from 80s Chicago house legend Robert Owens but close your eyes, listen to the music and it could easily be Lisa Stansfield. The song itself, an epic ‘lighters-aloft’ piece of melancholy bubblegum house, would be right at home on What’s That Noise.
Moving forward into early ’90s rave territory are Boogieman, This Island Earth and Just for the Kick. This Island Earth features yet another great vocal performance, this time from Mpho Skeef, over a bouncing house number complete with squelchy bass, huge chorus and thin cheesy piano to boot. Just For The Kick and Boogieman are both driven along on huge warm analogue basses that seem predesigned to reverberate amongst warehouse walls, the former periodically sliding down into washes of distant piano and string pads that bring 1993 to life as though it was yesterday.
In amongst all the nostalgia, however, are moments that sound utterly contemporary – take the viciously acerbic Aid Dealer, featuring a rage-filled rant from Soweto Kinch that simply couldn’t have been done without some 21st century cynicism. The lyrical content is highly politicised throughout the album, as you would expect from these boys, and there persists a strong underlying air of melancholy. This very much accentuates the contrast between the pre-millennial dreams which would naturally accompany much of the music, and the grim portraits of reality that are actually here. Man In A Garage and Whistle And A Prayer embody that melancholy well, but it is Saul Williams‘ story of hopelessness in Mr. Nichols that best captures the spirit of the modern profits vs. principles conflict that dominates the whole album.
Finally, almost trimphantly, the closing moments of the album move stylistically into easily identifiable Ninja Tune territory, with the stealthy title track possibly reflecting a musical umbilical cord between the label and its parents. All in all, whilst there’s no one song here that can quite stand up to Atomic Moog 2000, Autumn Leaves or People Hold On, as an album Sound Mirrors is easily the equal of its predecessors. With neither Coldcut nor Ninja Tune showing any sign of slowing down in the 21st century, it’s quite possible that (to quote another Coldcut collaboration) the only way is up.