The much admired and equally maligned chillwave movement has certainly been one of the most prominent musical and cultural phenomena in American indie over the past year or so. Frosty synths, ’80s drum machines and downbeat vocals have become as fashionable as moustaches and lens-less geek glasses. Small Black are further proof that this chillwave movement looks set to continue, making the coming winter months look ominously colder.
It’s no surprise to learn that Small Black began as a small suburban bedroom recording project (which band isn’t these days?) back in 2008 with their first EP, making waves for its pulsing patchwork synths and the way each song unfurled delicately. New Chain is more polished than their previous work and this shiny new surface reflects clearly the band’s desire for experimentation and pushing their past sound even further.
The resulting experimentalism is admirable, yet ultimately too foggy to produce a concise vision of the new sound the band clearly had in mind. Each song is set under a translucent layer of smoke which smudges most the music’s key ideals into an incomprehensible grey mush. It’s quite disappointing to learn that the man behind the mixing, Nicolas Vernhes, has previously worked on albums with the delightfully bright Dirty Projectors and the eternally fascinating Animal Collective. It seems that the clarity of vision from those two bands is left slightly wanting in New Chains.
The track Photojournalist, however, stands out as a shining beacon of rare warmth in this genre. Synths bulge and expand, rise and pop as the vocals remain restrained, trying hard not to be taken over by the foremost enthusiasm of the track, remaining cool at all costs. Goons is also delightfully oddball. The track begins with what sounds like air horns fighting for prominence; wavy synths join in the battle as do the vocals. And right at the end, all components of the song cease combating and join together in one last almighty push for unity.
All in all, Small Black would probably have stood out as pioneers had they hit fame early in 2008. Instead they risk dropping off the radar. Luckily, change and ambition has always been a particular virtue of the band: “It’s always been a question for us,” explains keyboardist/songwriter Ryan Heyner, “of how much to push it, how much to reveal. I find a lot of the best music creeps up on you.” New Chain certainly creeps about, but instead up jumping up out of nowhere and giving you a welcome fright, it fights for attention alongside many similar sounding artists.
New Chain is unmistakably chillwave, undeniably fashionable within the American music scene right now, but doesn’t half make you yearn for a bit of sunshine. After listening to this album, you may notice a chill run down your spine, feel goosebumps begin to form on your forearms and, ultimately, you may find yourself putting The Shins on for some essential warmth.