The best thing about Malachai is that they’re delightfully odd. With MC Gee’s ransacked drawl, the lo-fi serration of the music and their cocked-eyebrow demeanor, the duo’s debut Ugly Side Of Love sounded strikingly original – and it made for some well-deserved praise. It was also pretty hard to imagine what a sophomore effort might sound like. As such, Return To The Ugly Side has a certain penchant for inscrutability; it has the duo opening up their compositions in off-kilter, genre-hopping possibilities, with predictably varying results. But their character stays intact; as such their eccentricities remain the main draw.
Malachai are paying more specific homage here, their fetish for acidic psych-rock is more specifically tied to punk’s prehistoric dimensions – the kinetic drums and zonked harmonies of (My) Ambulance could find plenty of partners on the Nuggets comp. Their watery trip-hop is more placid, and more Portishead-y than ever (check the gorgeously warped interlude Sanke Eyes) and sometimes the songs seem birthed from a happenstance studio jam. It’s especially present on the band’s sparser tracks, the sedate tribal stomp Distance sounds selected from a much longer composition, and the percussive, analog-dream closer Hybernation clips out into nothing mid-crecendo. If anything it sounds like Malachai are building songs as a band, less emphasis on samples, more on songwriting – with plenty of pacing and musical movement to make the album’s 35 minute running time seem a lot longer, but in a good way.
It’s still a claustrophobic listen, densely enclosed in a percussive, antagonistic world – but it still has those moments of visceral glory. The primary highlight of their debut was Snowflake, a bile-spewing anthem of devilish intent; naturally the best songs on Return follow that coda. The dizzy, narcoticized blues of The Don’t Just or Anne has the band at their most natural highs, giving their already compacted demeanor a springboard into upper-echelon songwriting. But Malachai spent the bulk of Return To The Ugly Side revelling in quiet moments, string-laden beauties and minimal, occasionally empty experiments dominate the landscape. It doesn’t sound much like the place they’re allegedly “returning” to.
But what’s primarily impressive about the brief legacy of Malachai thus far is how much they care about their persona, and how well it’s working for them. Only two albums in they’ve nurtured a specific, verging-on-idiosyncratic sonic definition. Malachai sound unmistakably like Malachai, and they’ve run with that self-aggrandizing perk with sagacious care. Referencing the name of your debut in the title of your second full-length and doing interviews entirely in character speaks of a certain cocksure poise. Do they deserve a mythos? Probably not; they’ve yet to write anything truly great. But the curious originality on display will at least keep critical attention for the foreseeable future. Maybe someday Malachai’s cultish, iconoclastic tendencies will make perfect sense. Return To The Ugly Side is probably not the most straightforwardly likable work, but it does prove they have significant range.