Remember Chungking? Perhaps not. Yet in the mid-’00s they were a productive bunch. Their initial creative period ended with 2007’s Stay Up Forever, which was, as that title suggests, tailor made for the dancefloor. Since then, there’s no hint of activity from the Brighton outfit, as electropop trends have come and gone at the speed of lightning. One could argue that they’ve missed their chance to ride the crest of the digital wave.
Even so, after eight long years, they finally return with Defender. Anyone hoping for a revelatory listening experience is likely to come away feeling very indifferent. This isn’t the boldest comeback in the world, either in tone or style. If anything, it actually comes cross as a little pedestrian. Tracks like Real Man should be exploding out of the speakers with glee – all of the key components are in their right place – yet they just… don’t.
What’s more, the Goldfrapp comparisons that have so often featured throughout their career cannot be shaken off; all that does is remind one of how much more effective Goldfrapp are at this kind of stuff. The feeling of overfamiliarity, in general, is rife. Can I Get Your Love sounds like a leftover from Little Dragon‘s Ritual Union. Every now and then there are attempts to make an emotional connection that transcends, but the results are standard. Your Love Isn’t Real sees Banks trying desperately to carry the song on her shoulders and she can’t quite pull it off.
Their music still has the power to seduce, but only on occasion. Next To Me, with its fluttering vocals, is a good case in point, but Stand By Me is the highpoint. Its groove is throbbing and robotic, with synthesisers squelching out sounds like a laser gun. Elsewhere, Beautiful World is one of the few tracks that feels unrestrained and is gloriously atmospheric for it.
It’s only in the final section of the record that Defender comes close to finding its soul. There is a lot more acoustic instrumentation to be found and there are some more interesting results, if not all successful. Sapphire is gently hypnotic and intimate, even with the addition of an unnecessary flute solo, whilst Heaven brings down the curtain in a remarkably sombre way, with plaintive piano playing a key role.
How different Defender could have been if Chungking had put all its focus on this side of their personality. It would have made for a riskier follow-up, but after so much time out of the spotlight, it would have been a major reinvention. It’s tricky to regain the momentum after being away for so long, though it’s not impossible. Bands like Blur and Mew have already proved so. Chungking, however, face much more of an uphill struggle. There are two or three tracks worth playing on repeat but, for the most part, it’s disappointingly bland.