Gothenburg four-piece Little Dragon made a bit of a splash with their 2007 self-titled debut – standout tracks Twice and Test the subject of particular acclaim – but did not, for whatever reason, seem to seize the initiative with 2009 follow-up Machine Dreams. Standing steadfastly with their post-dubstep mode, Little Dragon (named for the temper tantrums of Swedish-Japanese lead singer Yukimi Nagano, apparently) return once more with their stylish blend of minimal synth-pop and last-decade R’n'B.
With the odd accusation of chill-out room sample-friendliness though, are they right to stick to their guns? Labelmates Jose Gonzalez and Nouvelle Vague are pigeonholed as mere TV ad soundtrackers more often than not, so shouldn’t Little Dragon aim to break the mould while they still can?
In a word, no: Nagano and co have honed their craft since forming their band as high school chums, and now is not the time to change tack. Eponymous album opener Ritual Union, in fact, immediately ranks among the very best of their material: deep dub bassline, ear-twitching synth flourishes and – of course – the timbre of a voice so instantly gratifying that it just about stole the show on Gorillaz‘s Plastic Beach LP.
At the point of this, their third album proper, Little Dragon are clearly kings of their castle: Little Man trips along with the self-assurance of a veteran, its chary juxtapositions enough to stop listeners in their tracks; Brush The Heat rolls out falsetto paranoia, discordant progressions and Nagano’s now-trademark vocal distortions; Shuffle A Dream bounds forth with a fistful of resolution, upscaling dark wave with an up-to-the-second deftness.
Such resolution, perhaps inevitably, carries through: Ritual Union strays little from its formula, the band seemingly intent on exploring, exploiting and expounding the virtues of their particular expertise. Please Turn, for instance, exhibits a thudding, pleading variation on a theme, but could conceivably sit just about anywhere in the tracklisting – and the same applies for every one of Ritual Union’s constituent parts.
Not that Little Dragon should have their consistency held against them. Indeed, the overriding impression is that the band are cramming ideas into their formula rather than sticking to a formula for a lack of ideas: Crystalfilm’s chillwave harmonies strike a chord, spurred on by bare-but-compelling percussion; Nightlight adopts Casbah-pop, sounding like Santigold in Algiers.
The album’s tail-end, of course, represents carte blanche for even the staunchest of genre exponents, and Little Dragon are no exception as Summertearz ushers in languid, comparatively organic acoustics and a minimal canvas. Further, When I Go Out – Ritual Union’s longest and most indulgent track at six minutes long – sees the band positively experiment, its pitch-bending, minor chord cornucopia coming across like a lucid nightmare, while album closer Seconds has more than a touch of the cheery wistfulness that made Nagano’s guest spot on Gorillaz’s Empire Ants so enjoyable.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Little Dragon clearly weren’t broken, so they haven’t tried to fix themselves; they have instead filed their art into an incisive point, and with Ritual Union stand at the top of their trade. This is far more than instantly-forgotten ad fodder.