Bonobo ‘The North Borders’ (Ninja Tune)

A more than worthy follow-up to the much-praised ‘Black Sands’ album and remix set

Simon Green, the man behind Bonobo, has spent the last decade or so quietly but determinedly taking chill-out music beyond its age of enlightenment. He makes art music that has universal appeal; music that moves swiftly past the mundane and straight into the head-and-heart zone. 

Witness Bonobo’s critically acclaimed ‘Black Sands’ album in 2010. Green’s calculations are complex and detailed, his textures an inspired balance of live instrumentation and electronic sound, and his rhythms loop and swirl, his basslines creeping forward in that way that hits below the hip. The result is not strictly ambient electronic music, but it’s definitely chill-out with electronica mastery at play. ‘Cirrus’, the first single from ‘The North Borders’, is a good example. It’s a tune which spreads, like ink on blotting paper, incense in a room. 

The comparisons here are more with the ‘Black Sands Remixed’ album than the bulk of the original ‘Black Sands’ or the previous ‘Days To Come’ set. ‘The North Borders’ shows progression. It’s seriously hip, neat, yet with an echo of authenticity, such as with the opener, ‘First Fires’, featuring the true-grit vocals of Grey Reverend. Perhaps the New Kool in Simon Green’s symphonies – and the wider pop appeal – comes from experience, through working in production with other people, and also the extensive touring of ‘Black Sands’; certainly tracks change energy and pace (‘Know You’, ‘Ten Tigers’) and each follows the next with a DJ’s instinct. It adds to the vibe for the listener and proves that all artists need to get out of the solitary confines of a studio once in a while.

Green is known for his collaborations and ‘The North Borders’ has the vocal stamp of up-and-coming songwriter and arranger Szjerdene all over it (check out her ‘Patchwork’ EP). But if there is a standout track, it has to be ‘Heaven For The Sinner’, featuring Erykah Badu, not just because of Erykah’s unique tone and phrasing, but because Green does the trip hop-meets-electronica thing so well. What follows is the open and airy instrumental ‘Sapphire’, which has a genius moment, because it’s then this album hits the heart hard and opens the mind. There are resonances of a few old classics here, especially thematic albums like Ultramarine’s ‘Every Man And Woman Is A Star’ or ‘Let The Freak Flag Fly’ by Tranquility Bass. 

Green’s aim is to produce tracks that work both alone and as part of a whole, as part of a complete piece in the classical sense. Interestingly, his mother was a concert violinist, an influence also evident in the sweeping strings of this album. Some tracks shine brighter than the rest, but it’s certainly an all-encompassing chunk of loveliness. The fact that Simon Green refers to Bonobo creations as projects shows he appreciates that development does not mean perfection, or always breakthrough, only putting it out there and sharing the process – and that’s the most important thing for any artist who wants to communicate. 

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