Manchester four-piece Delphic have never been ones to play by the rules – back in 2010 when they cropped up on the BBC Sound Of… list, they felt exciting, gleaming in the synth-washed grandeur – distanced from their fellow Northern peers, a force fighting against the then-decline of XFM-friendly indie frippery. Their debut LP Acolyte was a stunning achievement – by far one of the strongest debuts of the year, critics and fans alike bending over backwards to hail them as New Order born-again; fawning at their immaculately glossy future-electronica. Records like the six-minute Counterpoint were crystalline capsules of wonder – shot at light-speed from the 41st century via the hallowed floor and sparkling lights of the Hacienda. Could the band ever even begin to live up to expectations on their sophomore effort?
Come late last year – in the wake of their questionable Olympic theme Good Life – and there was already the telltale whiff of quotes like ‘‘we’re desperate to do something that hasn’t been heard before’’ that always seems to accompany albums that the artist knows will frustrate the fanbase even before they’ve released it. And Collections – as an album – is immensely frustrating. Not because it’s a bad album, but because it doesn’t sound like a Delphic album.
Maybe we’re listening with too unkind an ear – after all, for the band who so clearly idolised New Order – the masters of re-invention, rising from the post-punk ashes of Joy Division – maybe their very own evolution had always been on the cards from the start. But the thing is, their 2010 debut Acolyte was so singularly excellent, so clinically better than anything else any ostensibly branded up-and-coming ‘guitar’ act was putting out at the time, to hear the group – three years on – throw all that away and dive headfirst into an amorphous pool of quirky grooves and disconnected soundbites is to lose everything that made Delphic so great in the first instance. What remains offers its own strengths – but they’re the strengths of a fundamentally different band.
Collections stamps its new template early – The oriental strings and percussive pulse of lead single Baiya are enjoyable, toting a strong chorus to boot; while Of The Young is a fiery, driven statement of intent, an introductory piece proclaiming a brave new era – albeit one where Delphic sound like plasticised clones of Friendly Fires. Likewise, The Sun Also Rises is a firm second single candidate – offering up more strings and the awareness of a band perfectly capable of crafting a proper glory-anthem when they put their minds to it.
But on the other hand, tracks like Changes or Atlas feel like they’ve been wrangled tooth and nail out of aimless sessions over a period of months, only to result in fatty, sprawling playgrounds of noise – an afternoon delving through a keyboard shop. Every other second, some new jolt or spring of sonic liveliness will make itself known; curling itself into the –admittedly strong – production, in the process slowly rubbing away the semblance of consistent, focused songs. The less said about drafting in a rapper on album-closer Exotic, the better.
If there’s one saving grace to the new direction, it perhaps comes in the weird Pet Shop Boys-esque rubberiness of synth-ballad Freedom Found; all 80s synths and a gradual build into quasi-militaristic triumph. Here at least, the colourful arthouse boutique approach suits them, even if it seems to have alienated the radio playlists in the process.
It’s a rare gem though, and across the whole of Collections, it’s as if Delphic have been sucked dry of the aloof cool they clad themselves with on Acolyte; every aspect – vocals, production, songwriting – grasping toward a kind of Holy Grail of impossibly new, unheard-of sound that simply doesn’t exist. The production drips with gloss, but unlike Acolyte, it’s a gloss that obscures rather than glimmers; overthought, overwrought – the hallmark of a brand shifting and shrugging restlessly in a constant attempt to try and work out just who they want to be.