Unkle are not that well known in North America yet this British band counts already five studio albums to their arsenal. Released exactly a year ago, Where Did the Night Fall is worth searching for before the 5000 copy limited edition 'deluxe CD box' disappears from the shelves and the pre-owned market price skyrockets. Luckily for those who can't find it, nor willing to bid on eBay or such, there is an alternative; last month the men and women from Unkle decided to re-release the album under an altered - extended title plus a few new twists to appeal to their fan base.
The original release packaging is impressive: a 32 page board book celebrating the female form + 36 page perfect bound booklet + CD gatefold sleeve with two inner sleeves to hold the discs + outer rigid slipcase. + shrinkwrap. + silver foil sticker; all this in a lacquered silver and black finish. The second disc contains instrumental versions of the first disc. Aesthetically, it is one of the nicest CD packs I've had the pleasure of evaluating. I have not bought the re-release, but judging by the description and photos on the web, the front cover artwork (though in the same vein) is changed and gold has replaced silver as the main tone. Also, the first CD remains identical in song and sequence but the second CD offers older material from two of their previous EP's, plus a number of exclusive and rare tracks. All in all, the quality and completeness seem on par with the original. There is also a 500 copy limited edition '3 picture-disc vinyl box set' available, but at $160.00 not everybody will be willing to dish out that kind of doe.
"Nowhere" opens the album with a crescendo of trebly distortion ending abruptly and leaving us gasping for air. Almost immediately "Follow Me Down" (featuring Sleepy Sun) gets things rolling with drummers Graham Fox and Brian Tice, introducing the first rhythmic beat of the album. Singer Rachel Williams lends her powerful voice while James Griffith assumes bass and guitar duties on this slightly Indo influence alternative piece, until the brass section of The Heritage Orchestra bring things to a close with almost James Bond Fanfare. From the get go things bode well for musical Enjoyment. On the other hand, the sound level is too loud due to the hard compression / limiting that is omnipresent throughout the album. There are lots of rumbling low frequencies but the lack of detail in the top end renders the bass ill defined and resonating like a badly tuned subwoofer. That said, the tonal balance leans towards the downward and is not as harsh as most of current pop/rock.
"Natural Selection" (featuring The Black Angels) boasts some heavily distorted lows and kick; all this in an artistic direction. Alex Maas takes to the mike and the satisfaction continues at least music wise. The sound is more compressed and limited on this track, features highs that are densely distorted producing a 'crunchy buzzy' treble. I had to lower the volume because 'listener fatigue' was setting in with my ears feeling full.
"Joy Factory" (featuring Autolux) brings some mild relief to our 'sensory receptors'. Again the pattern of vocals alternating between the sexes continues; the latter reminiscent of Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" (Merge). On this track, singer Carla Azar takes the lead and doubles the backing with added reverb. Hi-hat sequenced in 'reverse mode' alternate between left and right channels, bringing cerebral interest to the mix. Artistic distortion augments towards the coda to the point of thickening an already saturated rhythm.
"The Answer" (featuring Big in Japan) has a kind of Beach Boys acapella intro. The beat startles with lots of weight in the sub low region, the song structure resembling more Arcade Fire but with tons of heavy lows and distortion. Exaggerated compression making it way too loud; there is no dynamic range whatsoever.
"On a Wire" (featuring Lisa Lindley Jones), once more brings a bit of eardrum relief. The pace quickens as vocalist Jones and guitarist Joel Cadbury take charge. It is cleaner sounding; compression is lessened but still strong especially during the chorus. Musically, so far so good. Half way through the album and "Falling Stars" (featuring Gavin Clark) is in my opinion, the best cut for music and sound - the latter far from great but still good and above average. The guitar comes in first followed by singer Gavin Clark, both recalling the mid-1980's alternative style such as The Smiths with Arcade Fire mixed in. Looking towards the end, the beat takes a break giving way to superb ethereal panned vocals drenched in reverb. This is followed by a sliding 'disco' hi-hat reenergizing the rhythm. Lacking lows, the sound is more mid but also breaths better.
The short duration "Heavy Drug" is even more Beach Boyish in ambience than "The Answer" remaining mostly acapella if not for the slow synth crescendo sounding as if plucked from a 1970's space electronic piece. Brief but efficient. "Caged Bird" (featuring Katrina Ford of Celebration) is a second very strong composition; perhaps the high point of the album. Introduced by the synth, a 32 bar of kick dm with Ford on vocals follows and establishes the rhythm and melody of this oriental flavored alternative song with faint hints of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Sliding electrodisco hi-hat is veiled over a running bass. Again 'artistic' distortion is present 'til the beat stops upon which simply the voice and strumming guitar bring a refreshing contrast and release to the previous sound density and musical tension. Panned vocals subtly differ between channels. Sound is only fair.
After a longer inter song pause, a synth intro a la 'Blade Runner style' appears. Change of rhythm pattern plus sweeping violins alter the mood, as "Ablivion" sung by James Lavelle, confirms once more the elevated musical sensibilities of this British 'collective'. Ends with a flanging synth. Unfortunately the sound is greyish, lacks top end and too compressed with distorted cymbals. "The Runaway" (featuring Lisa Lindley Jones) sparks another change of ambience, this time more sparse than dense. Liberal use of frequency filtering/contouring shifts tone from mostly mid and veiled, before top end details emerge; nothing new but adds a nice twist to the overall envelope. Resembles Radiohead in texture and musical style.
For contrast in "Ever Rest" (featuring Joel Cadbury of South), the top end is heightened but everything is too compressed especially during the chorus. For a brief instant we can feel The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" from Revolver (EMI Parlophone) as an influence. Later in the track, low 'bass pedals' appear. "The Healing" (featuring Gavin Clark) is punished by exaggerated compression. Lots of treble detail on tambourine. Strings, violins, would blend well in a James Bond/John Barry soundtrack. Ascending high frequencies permeate the coda. Musically the only track a bit less worthy and sonically, the second worse of the album.
We close with "Another Night Out" (featuring Mark Lanegan) and another ambience. The pace is slow with a melody and singing style recalling Bowie's "Heroes" from "Heroes" (RCA). Strumming acoustic guitar, extremely exaggerated compression / limiting making ears feel full. Too bad because the song itself imparts a powerful mood but I had to lower the volume, thus defying the producers original purpose. This is another strong compo aggravated by an abysmal sound; the worse of the album I'm afraid.
In conclusion, be it Where Did the Night Fall or Where Did the Night Fall - Another Night Out, Unkle have produced a musically superb alternative album that no doubt will stand the test of time. Combining elements of electro-pop, indie rock, neo-psychedelic, eurodisco 'flirtings' and even classical chamber music; plus mixing such diverse instruments as drums, percussion, bass, guitar, organ, keyboards, synths, Moog, Fender Rhodes, brass and strings ensembles as well as a myriad of male and female guest singers and still making it stick together is a triumph in itself. With that in mind, one could make the case that Arcade Fire have been following such a recipe since their first album came out in 2004. To a certain degree, yes but make no mistake, Unkle is no Arcade Fire rip-off; in fact they have been at it — in different incarnations — since 1998, with the caveat that electronics played a bigger part on their earlier albums.
What is quite comparable though is the overuse of dynamic range compression due to a present generation of musicians, producers, engineers and even A&R reps hooked on a never-ending quest to sound 'louder than...'; this sadly leading to a future generation of premature deafness and 'distorted view' of "good sound".
Engineered by Pablo Clements, James Griffith and Sebastian Lewsley (on most tracks), was mixed and tweaked by Steve Dub at Musikbox and then mastered by Mike Marsh at The Exchange.