Software, hardware, wetware

Review of Pendulum - Immersion

I managed to get my mitts on a pre-release leak of Pendulum’s newest album, Immersion (iTunes link). I’m about to launch into a track-by-track review, peppered with food analogies - if you’re feeling hungry, I suggest you make a sandwich now.

I did this interview simultaneously with @ruzkin; it might be intersting to compare and contrast our reviews.

Before I begin though, I’ll disclaim: this album is going to be disappointing to a lot of fans. It’s going to take a pretty broad mind to get a lot out of it, and if you’re after more of Hold Your Colour (iTunes) or In Silico (iTunes again) I suggest you listen to a few tracks first and get a feel for it before purchasing.

This is not what you’re expecting. It’s experimental. @ruzkin described it to me as “reminiscent of early BT”. It crosses a lot of genre boundaries and tries to cover a lot of ground. In my opinion, the album is fundamentally compositionally flawed; the wrong tracks in the wrong place, and some that should have been left off the album altogether. It is by no means perfect.

I found a lot to love in it; I’m a fan of electronic music in general, so I’m not wedded to the concept of Pendulum as a drum’n’bass act. I wager that at least 70% of their former fans won’t feel the same way.

Here we go, track by track …

Genesis Okay. Bookend. We’re getting started. Oh, Genesis, the beginning, I see what you did there. That said, some classy chiptune-y action up in this track. Okay warm up, forgettable compared to Prelude…

Salt In The Wounds To my ears, this track was just overbearing. SiTW is heavy and hard right from the get go - satisfying amounts of bass if you have the right speaker stack for it. Oh, you don’t have a speaker stack? Hrm. You’re probably not going to get full value from this one then.

By about the midway mark, I was finding Salt In The Wounds repetitive and uninspired. Even the breakdown was much of a muchness, albeit pitched up a little. And then it keeps going. And going. And going.

It’s definitely drum’n’bass, and I can see this being a good track for clubs, but when I’m listening to the whole album it just doesn’t sit well; I was expecting an entree and I was given a kilogram of beef steak. It’s too much, too soon.

Watercolour Now this. THIS. This is what I expect from Pendulum. The first track I heard from the new album (via their website), Watercolour does not disappoint. A gentle, nature-sound introduction rapidly breaks down into intense, melodic drums, driven vocals and tasty, tasty synth.

This track is… it is delicious. Pure and unadulterated Pendulum, it’s a rich lasagne of sound, dripping with delicious sauce. If you like nothing else on this album, I’m quite certain you’ll like Watercolour.

Set Me On Fire We’re back to the heavy d’n’b stylings here, but I much prefer this to Salt In The Wounds. Set Me On Fire has no pretensions about what it is - jungle beat, over the top synth, vocals - it’s drum and bass for the drum and bass set.

The vocals get a bit repetitive, but that kinda goes with the territory. I can’t say I love Set Me On Fire - it’s no Hold Your Colour - but I can definitely see myself stomping to it at Wobble. That’s about the best that can be said for it though.

Rating: antipasto. Some meat to it, but not enough to satisfy.

Crush Total break from Set Me On Fire - the transition is jarring. What’s happening? Then. OH MY GOD. Hello.

The drums are solid, if a bit staid. The synth line is engaging. The guitar line… oh yeah. That hit the spot.  The vocals grabbed me by the ears, hard.  Rob Swire’s vocal work has really come a long way; he seems much more versatile, and much more confident. This track really gives him a chance to show it off.

Definitely one of my favourites on the new album; it’s a slightly different sound for Pendulum, but more of an evolution than a revolution. Between Watercolour and Crush you at least have a taste of Pendulum’s origins.

Under The Waves Starts out a bit slow - the bass line was a bit uninspired. In fact, many musical elements of this track are staid on their own, but the overall composition fuses them into something greater than the sum of their parts.

The vocals, again, are a step up for Pendulum. You can really feel the results of their effort to play more live instruments - they sound more like a live band, and less like a digital composition band. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but for my money, the analog sound gives a bit more vibrancy).

This track has consistently been lodged in my head. Something about it just gets lodged deep down, and I find myself humming bits of it as I work.

Immunize Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. Crush and Under The Waves were a double-whammy of catchy melodies and rad vocals, and then we have Immunize.

Would you like some bass with your track?

It’s an energetic track, but it falls flat. There same loops are used over and over with little variation; the vocals are uninspired (to the point of being actively, brain-cell-reducingly boring). You might use this track in a videogame somewhere, maybe a racing game. People who like racing games tend to like repetition (yeah, I’m looking at you, Gran Tourismo players - seriously, endurance races? 3-4 hours in front of the TV on the SAME fucking track?)

Maybe samples from it can be used in a fight scene. It’s got that kind of vibe. I can see Nicholas Cage wackily beating fools down to this tune.

The Island - Pt. I (Dawn) Wait. What? What’s happening here? It’s a 4x4 beat… it should be boring… but… just when you think Pendulum have played their hand and run out of tricks, they shake it up by throwing what I can only describe as a trance track at you.

Yes. A trance track.

Die-hard fans are going to be so full of hate.

With this track, Pendulum take a page from the balearic trance school and produce something that would not be out of place on Armin Van Buuren’s A State of Trance. A beautiful melody over the top of a borderline cheesy beat with lyrics so uplifting they could make a depressed man hug a tree.

There’s something happening with this track; Pendulum are expanding their horizons. This was the track that made me realise that I couldn’t come to this album with baggage. It’s experimental, it’s different, it’s pushing some boundaries. Think back to Hold Your Colour, and some of the samples used on Streamline. This is, I suspect, what they were talking about. Pendulum don’t care about your genres, they’re making music that they want to make.

The Island - Pt. II (Dusk)

This is really still part of the first track. Except it isn’t. They’re dawn and dusk, two sides of the same coin. You can listen to Pt I in the morning, when you wake up, but Pt II is party time. PARTY TIME.

The cheesy trance of Pt I is taken to the extreme in Pt II, and completely shaken the hell up. For my money, Pendulum show up some of the trance producers out there who’ve been in their genre for a lot longer. It’s a brilliant fusion of the lads’ aggressive electro-rock-d’n’b origins and trance.

It’s positively dripping with cheese. It’s dirty. It’s aggressive. It’s fucking RAD.

This is the payoff for this double-part track, and it’s 100% worth it. You’ll be listening to this on headphones on a tram, and you’ll start to shuffle your feet. You’ll bop along to it at work. You’ll hear it at a nightclub and go apeshit.

It’s definitely not what you’ve come to expect from Pendulum - but then, In Silico was very different to Hold Your Colour. These lads do something different with every album, and if you expect the same old same old out of them every time you’re always going to be disappointed.

If you come in with an open mind, however, these two tracks alone will reward you.

Comprachicos Huh? Who invited Trent Reznor to this party!?

We’ve gone from cheesy-but-rad-4x4 trance to what sounds like a dance remix of a Nine Inch Nails crescendo. It’s definitely something new for Pendulum. The guitar riff is dirty, but the bass line is defiantly In Silico-esque. Swire’s vocals are about half way between NIN and Pendulum.

Does it work? Well, it doesn’t not work, but it sounds out of place, especially after the amazing mid-point that was The Island. If it was a track unto itself it would be hailed as a good fusion of two related but distinct genres.

The Vulture Track 11 is a homage to new-school Prodigy. This track would not sound out of place on Invaders Must Die (mmm, maybe slightly earlier Prodigy than that, in hindsight). That’s not necessarily a criticism! It’s catchy, if a bit repetitive; like Prodigy’s more recent work, some of the vocals are distorted to the point of being impenetrable.

It’s weird, but Pendulum almost do Prodigy better than Prodigy themselves.

Technically there’s some interesting stuff going on. The levels on some samples are modulated in interesting ways to create a sense of tension and movement, and the bass is rich enough to carry it.

Somehow, though, it’s just not up to snuff. I don’t hate this track, but I don’t love it.

Witchcraft A vocally strong start to a track that I predict will be one of the most divisive on the album.

The sudden break at 0:45 is just brilliant - we go from a slow rock song to something more aggressive and powerful. When the bass line drops in, it’s delicious, gooey butter for the ears.

The vocals seem like they were inspired by Michael Jackson’s classic, Smooth Criminal. There’s a thematic correlation there that almost seems intentional - there’s even a musical similarity.

Personally I love this track. The bridges are excellent breaks in the sound, akin to the use of silence in a move or television series (hard to accomplish on an album so full of sound). There’s a sense of inescapable fear and action to the track.

I wager a lot of people won’t like it. Screw those hippies.

Self vs Self (Ft. In Flames) Meh. That is, unfortunately, my feeling on a track that clearly took some work to compose. There’s a lot going on here. In contrast to Under The Waves, individual elements are complex and interesting alone, but the sum of their parts is lacking.

I must admit, I don’t care much for metal, and this track is (duh) pretty metal. This is probably the most disappointing track on the album for me, and I’d would’ve been quite happy if it had been left off.

I take no pleasure in saying this, but: skip it.

The Fountain Mmmmmmm. It’s not bad, it’s just not great.

There’s an In Silico-esque vibe to this track, but it just doesn’t come together. Rock sound with electronic d’n’b delivery; synth is a repetitive, the vocals don’t quite resonate (despite solid delivery). The bass line is unimaginative.

It’s a lot more chilled out after Self vs Self, and I think that colours the experience of the track - like I said at the start of this review, I believe this album to be fundamentally compositionally flawed.

You can listen to it. You  might even enjoy it, but it won’t get stuck in your head. It’s not a track that Pendulum will be remembered for. A bit of a whimper for the album to end on.

Encoder Except it’s not quite ended!

Encoder is more in the vein of The Island than anything else on the album. There’s a bit of an 80s vibe going on, and despite my usual disdain for the 80s, I don’t hate it. The bass has a certain calypso beach, summer with a daiquiri feel to it - but it’s not a happy, relaxed song. The contrast of the sound and the themes will be jarring to some.

There’s an emotion to this track that’s hard to express, but I know it well. It’s a song of ending - “it’s over / we’re out of time / delete me / I’m on your side!” A strong yet sad goodbye, fond wishes and regretful farewell.

The breakdown and synth line at 2:48 is catchy. The track evokes The Tempest, but it’s more upbeat and poppy. It’s definitely NOT The Tempest though; it lacks the fire of that particular track (to the point of being disappointing by comparison - Tempest was an absolute highlight of In Silico).

Encoder ends the album with the gentle sounds of the album lapping on rocks (or possibly a jetty or wharf - believe me, if you spent time as a kid near a jetty, you can just hear the difference between water on rocks and water on a round chunk of wood. Weird, but there it is.)

Summary So. I enjoyed it. You might not. I’m hearing word from a lot of people that there is a subset of the population going ape over this album, so it might be that it’s more popular than I expect.

For some bonus lulz, here’s Pendulum doing the Australian Broadcasting Comission (ABC) News theme.