Review Summary: Ritual Union may not be Little Dragon’s best record, but it just may be the best representation of what makes them gel as a group."It's a bunch of pics of our parents and relatives so there's that obvious connection [the overt idea of marriage]. But it's basically one perspective on the whole 'Ritual Union' theme which is pretty ambiguous. It can represent a band, a marriage, humanity, the universe... whatever you feel connected to."
-Yukimi Nagano, 2011
The theme and cover art of Little Dragon’s Ritual Union
present a pretty neat idea: that the concept of marriage can be quite universal and flexible. Of course it’s most commonly associated with human matrimony, but I’m sure many of us have used the term in other contexts. Artists who put their craft before romance are “married” to their work, ministers are “married” to their faith, and so forth. The possibilities are practically endless as long as you feel an affection to someone or something in such a passionate way, and the first example drummer Erik Bodin used in a 2011 interview with Exclaim!
was - of course - music. He specifically singled out live performance as a ritual union, and one of the only examples of such that still exists in the Western world… or at least they will be again once the world at large manages to regain some semblance of normality.
Regardless, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Little Dragon would be the band to use such a concept. They’ve always represented a certain marriage in my view: a distinctly human touch integrated into cold electronica and synth-pop rhythms. They had it down to a science by the time this record came out, and I firmly believe that’s because they started out as a much more organic act with their self-titled debut. When you zoom out of this album and look at the bigger picture, it’s clear that Little Dragon have been progressively adding more and more electronic elements with each record; however, their softer R&B-influenced moments never really eluded their grasp. And that all comes down to one person: Yukimi Nagano. With all due respect to the other members, she’s always been the key to the group’s success. Her strangely flexible and idiosyncratic rubberband of a voice rarely fails to capture the mood of the music, no matter the variety of said moods.
And so it proves here as well. Ritual Union
serves as a nice balance between the band’s first two albums, combining the soulful jazz-lite stylings of the debut with the cold synth grooves of Machine Dreams
. The big difference this time, however, is the emphasis on diverse textures and rhythms - and of course, the way Nagano responds vocally to each one thrown her way. Certainly the title track demonstrates how well this all fits together, as her wispy vibrato-driven crooning is a perfect compliment to the perky upbeat synthpop at play. This song also begins a running theme for the album: conflicting and ambiguous tones. After all, Bodin brought up a more bitter point in his aforementioned interview:
“But then, the way it looked, we started loving it, because it has this sort of... I don't know wedding pictures, they capture that weird expectation in life that you've made the right move, this is the beginning of something new. Sadly, most of those people are divorced. It's one of the many references to the ritual union.”
Songs like “Summertearz” and “Precious” are much darker and more emotionally draining tracks that seem to reaffirm this quote, especially in their lyrical themes of separation and disappointment. And it’s here that I give the instrumentalists of Little Dragon their due credit, as they have a firm grasp on every mood they’re supposed to convey. Fredrik Wallin and Håkan Wirenstrand can make their keyboard and bass work sound nostalgic, creepy, sorrowful, and peppy all without breaking a sweat. Everything from the groovy synth triplets of “Crystalfilm” to the extended electro-exotica jam of “When I Go Out” to the doomlike tread of “Precious” is used to explore several different facets of the album’s theme, and Bodin reacts accordingly with the effortless incorporation of varying tempos and styles into his drum work. The only downside of the record is that, in isolation, the songs do tend to get a bit too repetitive from time to time. In The King of Limbs
fashion, there’s just a bit too much emphasis on repeating motifs and beats which leads to listener fatigue. “Seconds” is a particularly egregious offender, constantly looping its minimalistic synth line to close the album on a slightly disappointing note.
But much like a marriage between spouses, a union between band members is (ideally) all about growing and evolving. I find it interesting that the Little Dragon name came from Nagano’s reputation for throwing tantrums in the recording studio, because Ritual Union
sounds like the product of strong chemistry between her and everyone else involved. Out of all the group’s outings, this is definitely one of their most bold and confident bodies of work; there are so many emotions, moods, and styles to unpack here that it warrants several listens to grasp every nuance. Ritual Union
may not be Little Dragon’s best record, but it just may be the best representation of what makes them gel as a group: their cohesion, their stylistic variety, and their emotional appeal.