Niagara burst into life last year with their debut release, Otto. It was a daring and adventurous pop album that often surprised but wasn’t as focused as it could have been and the tunes themselves were hit or miss. With this Italian duo, David Tomat and Gabriele Ottino, there’s no middle ground whatsoever. They’re also quick workers – no sooner had we last heard from them, and they’re back to unleash a follow-up
The title, Don’t Take It Personally, seems rather apt as those who found Niagara’s debut difficult and hard-going will undoubtedly detest this record. It takes that formula and makes it sound even bigger than before and its influences seem even more wide-ranging than their first outing. Described by its makers as “the ongoing struggle to balance our desire to develop and exploit technology against the need to make technology more sympathetic to nature,” this definitely feels like a battle of man versus machine – booming electronics frequently with extremely psychedelic and pastoral textures, with a human voice somewhere trying to make his voice heard above the racket. It’s clearly heavy on ideas and big on ambition but Niagara once again are finding themselves tripping over the same hurdles that have scuppered them before.
It’s difficult to keep up with them on some songs, as they go from one extreme to another. Laes would have been more effective as a simple acoustic lullaby rather than an overbloated five-minute epic, whilst Else starts off like a daydream before gradually turning into a menacing EDM monster, sounding like a rough sketch rather than a finished piece of work.
Yet there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Niagara are capable of being focused when they want to. VanillaCola lives up to its sugary title – a concise, driving, pulsating track that fizzes and bubbles away with steely determination. Nearly two minutes in, the arpeggios start whirring and the drums become more urgent. It recalls the best of M83‘s early work. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Currybox shows impressive restraint to allow its sweeping string arrangements to compliment its skittering and spluttering rhythm.
The album finishes with Bloom and this is where the combination of human and synthetic layers work best. The vocals might be laden with all kinds of effects (vocoders, looping), making the lyrics hard to decipher, but the release halfway through, where a beautiful piano melody triumphantly rises above the broken down synthesisers around it, is truly glorious.
Niagara’s inconsistencies should be enough to drive people to despair. However, for all the flaws, there’s something there that suggests that Tomat and Ottino are capable of delivering a true masterpiece. That’s why it’s difficult to completely give up on them, even if the rest of their career is spent being even more freewheeling. Niagara have developed a reputation, meaning that anything they put out is always going to be worth listening to, regardless of whether or not it’s a success or a failure. In the meantime, Don’t Take It Personally is, like its predecessor, a record where the highs are incredible and the lows are disappointing.