Techno demigod Neil Barnes picks up where he left off. Brace your ears
‘Leftism’ was a meteor that smashed so hard into the 1990s, it knocked house music out of orbit. It came a year before ‘Trainspotting’ legitimised dance culture for Oasis fans and it followed a precision-controlled sequence of releases and remixes. The greatest of these was ‘Open Up’, a spine-tingling call to arson by future butter merchant John Lydon. ‘Leftism’ wasn’t as complete an album as, say, Orbital’s ‘In Sides’ or Underworld’s ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’, but it still felt vital and dangerous.
To best understand Leftfield’s third album, it’s worth remembering how Neil Barnes and Paul Daley left off. Their second long-player, ‘Rhythm And Stealth’, came a little too late. Madonna had already cast her blinding ray of light on dance music, big beat had come a long way, baby, and UNKLE had sewn up the guest vocalist thing with ‘Psyence Fiction’. Dance music was mainstream, not rebellion. Leftfield chose not to “stand and fight” (‘Release The Pressure’, 1992) but instead “took the money, honey” (‘Open Up’, 1993) with an all-conquering Guinness advert. Leftfield stopped being, well, left-field. If you needed danger, you turned to Chris Cunningham’s Frankensteinian recreation of Aphex Twin.
So it’s in this context, rather than with that early Hollywood-razing rage, that we approach the long-awaited ‘Alternative Light Source’. Good things come and all that. The first thing to point out is that Leftfield is essentially now Neil Barnes on a solo mission, although he has littered the new album with guest vocalists, leaning heavily on Poliça’s Channy Leaneagh. The balloon-farting ‘Head And Shoulders’ morphs from a naff Sleaford Mods shampoo rant (yes, that naff) into something expertly sliced up and buried in melancholia. The eccentric and annoying drug waffle of ‘Little Fish’ leads to a trance bassline that takes its moment to swell with joyful intensity, like an engorged Factory Floor. And the brisk and dreamy pop of ‘Bilocation’ is just asking to be unleashed as a single.
Elsewhere, we have pastoral techno that fizzes in your ears: the walking keyboards of the excellently languid instrumental ‘Dark Matters’, the spacious ketamine-Grimes vibe of ‘Levitate For You’, the low-key ‘Storms End’. Barnes leans on modulation wheels a lot, lending a cosiness to the album opener, ‘Bad Radio’, and there are caves of echo on the vocals. Some of this is at odds with Leftfield’s reputed aural assault, but then there’s ‘Universal Everything’, the great comeback single for the techno heads, an eight minute jackhammer disco workout.
What we end up with is intricate headphone listening alongside sporadic yet bowel-clearing club crescendos, the sonics screwed for all they’re worth. The double nature of this record is perhaps best expressed in the sister tracks ‘Alternative Light Source’ and ‘Shaker Obsession’. The title cut is cute and yawning and a hot favourite for an atmospheric live set starter, while the latter’s pounding rhythm is a poorly controlled mix of growling oscillations and Harthouse-style crashes.
On further listens, the shampoo and fish babble grate a bit, and an old raver like me is always going to be left wanting more club stompers, but Neil Barnes knows what he’s doing. And where he was when he stopped what he was doing after ‘Rhythm And Stealth’. This is late 90s Leftfield in a post-butter advert world and although ‘Alternative Light Source’ is not meteoric, it shines brightly enough to warrant repeated plays.