Review Summary: The best debut album of 2007 gets an even better sequel.
It's always a thrill when a band arrives on their debut album as fully formed as Stateless did, but it become a hurdle to overcome by the time the second album rolls around - if you're already the finished article, what can you add? Then again, when a single answers those questions as brilliantly and succinctly as "Ariel" did, you've got to hold your hands up and give your congratulations.
But "Ariel", with its fluid Arabic countermelodies and quasi-exotic percussion, doesn't point the way for the rest of the album in the way you might expect. Those elements are largely confined to that song and sections of the closer "I Shall Not Complain"; instead it's the chorus, with its heavy, juddering bass attack, that lets you know what to expect. Stateless
was clearly an electronic album primarily, swiping most of its moves from the likes of DJ Shadow, Massive Attack, and latter day Radiohead, but it tended to sound organic - Matilda
drives things into territory that's unmistakably the work of computers. The rumbling, droning bass and glitches on "Song for the Outsider", the almost retro drum machine on "Miles to Go", the heavy, angular synths on "Assassinations" and "I Shall Not Complain", the distorted, throaty sweeps on "Red Sea", the arpeggiator on "Curtain Call"; there are several touches here that never let you forget that you're listening to an electronic band. That wasn't the case on Stateless
, almost all of which could have been performed on acoustic instruments.
Arguably, this sees the band lose their greatest strength - the synergy between man and machine on Stateless
was frequently flawless, offering up a sound that was futuristic and pristine, but also deeply human. Yet they can still do human, and to a greater extent than they have been - the excellent "I'm on Fire" (featuring Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond) is the finest example of that, being probably the most well-judged and convincing Jeff Buckley soundalike since Scott Matthews released "Elusive". His influence was present throughout Stateless
, but was bubbling below the surface - by dragging it right to the surface here, they've opened themselves up to copycat taunts, but they've also written one of the best tracks they'll probably ever write, and that's more important in the long run. Elsewhere, it's like the turn toward electronics has forced them to find newer and more extreme ways to express their organic side, as if to counter-balance it - "Ballad of NGB", "Junior", and the start of "Song for the Outsider" are drenched in strings contributed by the Balanescu Quartet (with "Junior" also giving vocalist Chris James an unexpected opportunity to stretch out into soul territory), while "Curtain Call", "Red Sea", and "Visions" drift into post-rock.
I have to confess that, even after loving their debut as much as I did, I didn't expect them to come back with a second album as good as this. Still recognisably the work of the same band (an impression largely helped by James' arresting voice), Matilda
expands on the palette considerably, shooting off on several tangents without muddying the overall aesthetic at all. It's harder to get into than Stateless
, but once this sinks in properly, it's even better. Even if I'd set my expectations high, I think I'd still be surprised and impressed by this. Bravo, guys.