How long does an album take to make? History is littered with tales of day-long recording sessions, but including the writing process makes the question more interesting. Daft Punk’s third album Human After All was said to have been created in two weeks, but was also criticised for being underdeveloped and overly repetitive, while Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak was created in three and faced similar criticism. Soulwax seem to be experimenting with this idea, having recorded their previous album From Deewee in one take and now completing Essential in a fortnight for BBC Radio 1’s feature of the same name.
Many of the tracks refer back to the word “essential”, making the whole album sound like variations on a theme. The word is repeated over and over, inserted in lyrics (“My mind is accelerating / I can’t get it to slow down / it’s ever so necessary / essential to find out how”), spelled to the beat, and near the end synonyms are found. Their production is mostly based on house music, with little detours into funk on Essential Four, acid on Essential Nine and a kooky ’80s sound on Essential Twelve.
In a compositional sense the album is basic but enjoyably so. It begins with a repeating note that powers its way through interference before becoming the stodgy centre of a drop, and many other tracks base their grooves on one-note motifs. The loops slowly modulate but are rarely switched completely, an exception being the longer Essential Six. The sound design, however, is surprisingly intricate, whether it’s the sleek synth chords on Essential Three or the way the kitchen-sink percussion dissolves into distortion on Essential Eight. Because of this Essential remains diverse and interesting throughout even when working with ideas that have become familiar.
The most fleshed-out song is Essential Ten, which as a result feels like the album’s centrepiece. Opening with pattering drums and swirling synths, a powerful gust of flanged noise then blows through the track and doesn’t leave until the bassline has fully introduced itself, flanked by syncopated chords. The synths adopt more of a trickling quality, at which point an instrument that sounds a bit like a mandolin is added and the track builds up to a brilliant climax, a real highlight for its sense of drama.
There are other sections that stay in the mind through their intensity: the pounding beat of Essential Five is matched with wordless vocals and an squelching overdriven bassline that dominates the whole track as soon as it arrives, and Essential One’s build-up is long but very worthwhile, bringing to mind Soulwax’s re-edit of Armand Van Helden & Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers. Indeed, much of Essential shows a knack for pacing that has served them well through their long career of remixing, and the album doesn’t flag noticeably at all – an impressive achievement when considering the fate of Human After All and 808s & Heartbreak.
This album was submitted to Radio 1 in lieu of a mix, and in many ways it works better when considered on those terms. Because lots of the tracks have a similar vibe they could blend in perfectly well with each other, and it’s a shame that they don’t overlap at any point as this could have improved the overall experience. However, the album is still immensely enjoyable and generously rewards repeat listens. In the space of a year or two Soulwax have gone from a state of practical hiatus to being impressively prolific, and with music of this standard, you could almost say their presence is essential, too.