Submotion Orchestra are a collective of very talented musicians who re-imagine the sound and atmosphere of electronic music, namely that increasingly difficult to define term of ‘dubstep’, with a live band and add to it their own influences of jazz and soul. They were formed when an arts council commissioned a live dubstep work to play in York Minster and while they’re surely sick of reviews mentioning this, it does go some way to understanding them and their sound – they are a melting pot of different talents, styles and influences, all held together by a collective love of electronic music.
Their second album, Fragments, is a very mixed bag, and the results range from the very good to the quite bad. At their best, as on Thinking, where Ruby Wood’s beautiful delay and reverb-assisted 90‘s house vocals glide over a swaggering beat made up of skipping jazz-fusion drums and trademark swamping bass, they are quite a force, moving together with the type of fluidity a band can create that electronic music cannot quite recreate.
Thinking highlights them at their best, seeing them using their musical proficiency to compliment the song – the drums compliment the bass, which provide the perfect accompaniment for the vocals and the pauses between verse and chorus provide tension and structure. But too often on Fragments extended jams or instrumental sections take the place of songwriting, and the record suffers for this.
For when they stick to writing songs, using their best weapon, singer Ruby Wood, they excel – Snow’s sparse lounge jazz welcomes the ’80s trumpet flourishes and the warm comfort of the bass and the strings, and it works because they create an atmosphere around the song and stick to it, letting it breathe without overwhelming it.
Elsewhere It’s Not Me It’s You sees them successfully recreate a garage track; panning synths and pad stabs the backdrop for Woods’ electronically chopped up vocals. Blind Spot possesses a late-night Erykah Badu feel, but the instrumental sections aren’t interesting enough to hold attention, and the song looses the allure it began with the longer it goes on.
At their worst, when indulgences are entertained, the results can be quite bad. On Thousand Yard Stare, mariachi horns mix together with heavy dubstep bass resulting in some kind of ghastly Zorro-step, the sort of song that one can’t imagine anyone deciding to just ‘put on’. Artistic democracy is rarely a good idea for bands – much better that members know their role, and each person plays to their strengths, and unfortunately Fragments too often feels like the band trying to showcase their musical talents, rather than focussing on what all of their best moments are built on – good songwriting.
Similarly bad is Times Strange, a collaboration with Rider Shafique, who over an uninspiring percussive techno-y beat that recalls Doctor Who reels off line after line of lyrical soundbites which on first glance you might think are deep, thoughtful, or even meaningful – but they aren’t. Attempting his best Maxi Jazz impersonation, Shafique’s faux-philosophical and revolutionary statements instead make him sound as annoying Morpheus from The Matrix, if everything he was talking about was bollocks.
It’s a frustrating listen then, with its high points leveled by the low, and when they have a good song which they build together with their individual musical talents, the results are impressive. Fans of the band will still find lots to like here, and surely it will translate much better live, but as a record the lack of consistently good songwriting is noticeable, when perhaps live the sheer force of the band might disguise it.