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Holy Hell! Surrender Turns 20

Holy Hell! Surrender Turns 20

The psychedelic vein that ran through prior Chemical Brothers releases explodes here as Rowlands and Simons wed their ecstatic big beat with a deeper sense of experimentation.

By the end of the millennium, The Chemical Brothers had solidly established themselves as a premier act of mainstream electronica. Their boisterous big beat sound, fusing prevalent electronic trends with rock instrumentation and structure, marked the apex of attempts to fuse the two styles that had run through the entire ‘90s. The duo’s crossover success exploded with Dig Your Own Hole, but rockists who felt an inclination to dip a toe into the singles-oriented space of club music would find far sturdier footholds in Surrender. The natural extension of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’ ambitious fusion of styles within and outside of electronic music, the duo’s third LP was their first to feel like a statement, an old-school view of the album as object. The flow of the album stands in stark contrast to the often tossed-together nature of other electronic full-lengths, and the band go a step further in using the cohesion to make a larger point about the way in which electronic music is constantly building upon its own history.

Just listen to the co-mingling of influences and styles audible from the outset on opener “Music:Response,” which takes Kraftwerk circa Computer Love and doubles the tempo into slamming beats and chopped ‘n screwed vocoder declarations. Shrill beams of synths slice through the syncopated percussion like surgical lasers, eventually carving away everything but the brittle stutter of a hi-hat beat. “Got Glint?” sounds like the bridge between Daft Punk’s early French acid house and its eventual soundtracking work on Tron: Legacy, blending widescreen soundscapes of whirring synths and pads with oddball intrusions of whistling notes and more compulsively danceable beats.

On “Out of Control,” Rowlands and Simons go one further and bring in Bernard Sumner of New Order, one of the great pioneers of blending arty rock and cutting-edge club music, and the undergird his dispassionate vocals with an overwhelming barrage of intersecting synth lines, groaning bass and, eventually, a grumbling guitar breakdown. Modeled like one of New Order’s marathon 12” singles, the track pulls off Sumner’s band’s magic trick of never letting off the gas of the rhythm while running through enough distinct sections to make a proggy suite.

The single biggest influence on the album, though, may be the Beatles. The Chemical Brothers had mined the Fab Four before, all but openly cribbing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for Dig Your Own Hole’s “Setting Sun,” which even drafted Beatle superfan Noel Gallagher for vocals. Gallagher shows up here for “Let Forever Be,” which rolls out with backwards-masked strings and organ to double down on the group’s affection for Revolver’s trippy closing number. “The Sunshine Underground” follows and trades direct quotation for a more comprehensive reflection of the Beatles’ adventurous, form-altering pop. Nearly nine minutes long, the track mixes a cod orchestra into ordered chaos, drums not so much holding the beat as shoving the mass of canned horns and cooing flutes forward until everything blossoms into pure bliss, a percolating cascade that does not abandon the clutter of what came before but suddenly reconfigures it into a fluid, graceful rave. It’s “A Day in the Life” in reverse, emerging from hellish collapse into thrilling shape, and combined with the acid-washed, people-cluttered album cover, suggests that Surrender is the Chemical Brothers’ Sgt Pepper.

The psychedelic vein that ran through prior Chemical Brothers releases explodes here as Rowlands and Simons wed their ecstatic big beat with a deeper sense of experimentation. Even a straightforward trance track like “Hey Boy Hey Girl” shows off a newly honed sense of direction and purpose, with its slightly rubbery groove adding a dash of funk to what otherwise might have just been a purely shimmering pattern. “Asleep from Day,” meanwhile, is a lilting, spacey acoustic ballad that is slowly consumed by twinkling, Velvet Underground-esque keys that then morph into squelching, modern electronic fills. The left turns of an ostensible outlier track epitomize the duo’s increasing sophistication, and perhaps more than any other song on the album point the way toward the Chemical Brothers’ ever-bolder stabs at album-oriented releases like Come with Us and Further. Not as immediately recognizable as its predecessor, Surrender nonetheless marks the moment that the group truly arrived as a singular force in contemporary electronic music.

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