Hotly tipped Scottish producer Ross Birchard returns six years on from his thrilling debut
Hudson Mohawke’s debut album, ‘Butter’, was a triumph of rubbery day-glo beats. Released in 2009, it stood as an early marker for what writer Simon Reynolds has termed “digital maximalism”. The trend towards excess perhaps found its most confident form in ‘Glass Swords’, the 2011 set from fellow Glaswegian and Warp signee Rustie, but Hud Mo, aka Ross Birchard, has also continued to play around with the template in interesting ways.
‘Lantern’ is only Birchard’s second Hudson Mohawke album, though his profile has risen significantly in the interim. Most prominently, he teamed up with Lunice to form TNGHT, a side project that ended up playing to massive festival crowds on the back of the Stateside EDM explosion. Birchard has also become a genuinely huge force in hip hop, earning the coveted title of Kanye West’s go-to producer. And with last year’s ‘Chimes’ soundtracking an Apple advert, he seems perfectly placed to deliver a real statement.
Fittingly then, ‘Lantern’ is an expansive and expensive sounding album, with Hud Mo’s trademark glossy synth melodies given extra layers of polish. Birchard is clearly no longer the skewed beatmaster responsible for ‘Butter’, let alone his pre-Warp material. The tracks themselves are lean and considered, with elements working together rather than busily fighting for supremacy. While there’s still not a lot of empty space here, it’s a move away from kitchen sink maximalism towards a more assured, pop-oriented approach. Often this works very well – the R&B song ‘Deepspace’ being a good example – but occasionally it feels rather anaemic, like a bland copy of his previous work.
Rather than doubling down on what he considers his essential sound, Hud Mo uses ‘Lantern’ as a platform to showcase a variety of styles. Perhaps he wanted to avoid taking the easy route – he could have turned out an album of TNGHT-style bangers without much trouble – but instead of displaying his range, it just feels like Birchard doesn’t have a clear sense of what he wants to achieve. As an album, ‘Lantern’ isn’t remotely coherent. Not enough attention has been paid to the flow of the tracks and momentum is too often dissipated by poor sequencing.
The best moments come when Birchard keeps things simple – and thankfully the highlights are a real draw. Chief among these is the stunningly effective ‘Ryderz’, a fusillade of snares deployed at precisely the right time over a pitch-shifted soul sample. Birchard clearly understands the strength of his source material – DJ Rogers’ ‘Watch Out For The Riders’ from 1973 – as it’s given plenty of space to breathe before the percussion barrage. It comes to a climax with squiggly synth curlicues like butterflies tracing loops overhead. Ultimately, ‘Ryderz’ derives its power from the tension between restraint and abandon. Safe to say it’s got summer anthem status firmly locked down.
Birchard has been billing ‘Lantern’ as a classic, or at least a classic for him and his friends. But when Hudson Mohawke is remembered in the future – and given his immense talent, this seems more than likely – it won’t be for this. If you carved it up, you could assemble a brilliant EP, but as an album it feels scattershot and unfocused. While it’s certainly no mere retread of familiar ground, it lacks the giddy invention of ‘Butter’ and overall registers as a slight disappointment, despite a handful of very strong tracks.