This is deep, ambient reverie.
Coming after a mainstream breakthrough in 2013’s The North Borders, Bonobo’s Migration is quietly ballsy in its refusal to hone in on the most listener-friendly aspects of his sound. Now over 15 years in, the producer born Simon Green could make melodic, swooning, hip hop-indebted chill-out music until Ibiza sinks into the sea. Instead, Migration is a slow-burning excursion into the depths of minimal techno, evoking Pantha du Prince’s Black Noise, DJ Koze’s Amygdala, or Four Tet’s Pink more than anything in the Ninja Tune catalog from whence Bonobo came.
The most obvious break from Bonobo’s past work is the clout of its guests. Following Erykah Badu’s star turn on The North Borders, Green hired Rhye’s Milosh, Hundred Waters’ Nicole Miglis, and Nick Murphy (fka Chet Faker) this time around. They’re not as distracting as you might think, even if Miglis’s raw-throated purr brings the music a bit too close to indie-pop territory for comfort. Milosh’s famously androgynous voice melts into “Break Apart” and becomes just another fluid element snaking through the music. Murphy plays it more pop, but his “No Reason” comes deep in the album and feels more like a long-form disco epic than a potential pop single.
But for the most part, this is deep, ambient reverie, all bells and pattering live jazz drums and slow-simmering pads and strings. The drums drop out often; catchy melodies are sparse. The first five tracks comprise something of a suite centered around the tremendous, eight-minute “Outlier,” probably the best thing Bonobo’s ever done. The Miglis track introduces a more beat- and pop-oriented side of the album, which isn’t bad but snaps us awake after the bliss of the first half. The album would be better served if the two sides were switched, preparing us for a pop move before dissolving into a more out-there demonstration of what Bonobo does best.
“Ballsy” and “avant-garde” are, of course, relative. Bonobo’s music simply is not as daring or experimental as a lot of people prefer from their electronic music. As Green’s profile rises, this is unlikely to change too much. But it’d be terribly dull if every producer ramped up the noise and the dissonance just for the hell of it; we need producers like Bonobo around for when we just want to sit back and drift off into space.
Casual fans who bought The North Borders will probably be welcoming towards this new material, in part because of its guests and in part because of just how good it sounds. It’s hard to deny Green’s sheer skill at sound design, and at any given point in the album there’s a wealth of texture to wade through. Like Gas’s Pop, this is an album that creates an instantaneous reaction in the eardrums and sucks you wholly into its sound-world. This probably won’t end up being the best electronic album of 2017, but it just might go down as one of the best-sounding.