There’s always been two schools of thought when it comes to the way a band or artist sounds. Firstly there’s the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality of those who’ve settled on a particular set-up and made it commercially and critically successful. Then there are those who see each record as a chance to evolve and experiment. While more inherently risky, it potentially yields the greatest reward and satisfaction.
It could be argued that Malcolm Middleton has been – to all intents and purposes – in the former camp throughout his solo career. From his 2002 début to 2009’s Waxing Gibbous the sound may have gradually developed, becoming richer with each passing record, but at the heart of it all it’s always been unmistakeably Middleton and his relentlessly downbeat worldview.
Which makes his latest endeavour (released under the moniker Human Don’t Be Angry) all the more surprising. Lengthy ruminations and reflections on the life, love, relationships and the rest of the world have been chucked overboard. Instead we’re presented with an album of largely instrumental pieces which when placed together feel like a soundtrack to an as-yet unreleased film. Unexpected doesn’t even cover it.
Album opener The Missing Plutonium is a masterpiece of interweaved melodies underpinned by a dense, bass and syncopated drums. The stately H.B.D.A. Theme carries on from where its predecessor left off, the pair combining to turn the early stages of the album into a hypnotic, reflective mini-suite. Elsewhere 1985 sounds like Summer Camp covering Sigur Rós. It makes for a fascinating listen, not to mention concept, as Middleton stakes a claim to being able to make immersive, intricate soundscapes.
But when Middleton lends his voice to tracks – most notably on the haunting, heartbreaking Asklipiio – his world-weary tones suggest that less has changed musically than the bare facts surrounding his latest release may suggest. Likewise certain moments, most notably on album closing Getting Better and the aforementioned Asklipiio seem to contain hints at his previous endeavours. Different as the album is, the past hasn’t totally gone away.
Human Don’t Be Angry is a curious beast. Part hypnotic and glacial, part emotive and delicate, it manages to successfully straddle both a new musical direction and nodding to Middleton’s past, its central conceit of quasi-cinematic score as intriguing a proposition as it is effective. The trump card is that while it does indeed sound like a mythical soundtrack, it works as well in your living room as it would projected onto the big screen. A welcoming listen, it begs for repeated plays, each time opening itself up further. Different enough to remain interesting, familiar enough to retain old fans, Middleton may well have just pulled off a masterstroke.