Unkle seem to continually toy with their style – and thus the expectations of their listeners. What started off as a beat-heavy pairing between James Lavelle and DJ Shadow on Psyence Fiction quickly turned into an electronic cinematic soundscape with Lavelle and Richard File for Never, Never Land. From there things transitioned into a more focused rock sound with War Stories, before drawing on a hodge-podge of the former for the "kitchen sink" release End Titles… Stories For Film.
Throughout all of these the core of Lavelle and whomever-he-happens-to-be-partnered-with-at-the-time supplement their sound with a wide array of guests. In a way, this broader collective of guest artists are as much a part of the Unkle ethos as anything else. And for their latest release, Where Did The Night Fall, they also display how that mass of influences can begin to break apart.
Things start off promising. After a short intro, Sleepy Sun contributes to "Follow Me Down" which is a dark and trippy female-led slice of psychedelic electro-rock. It's a slight departure for Unkle, but one that works and is a compelling start to the record. Equally attention-grabbing is "Natural Selection" featuring The Black Angels. It marries a deceptively sing-songy vocal part to a really tight and British Invasion-esque rock amalgam of lots of different stylistic parts. Some of the energy is lost with "Joy Factory", although it still contains a monotone-but-sexy floatiness to the track. By the time "The Answer" rolls in, you find yourself wanting to use the word 'psychedelic' quite a bit more, yet in a good way. It's almost as if Massive Attack had gone down the Flower Power route.
Elle J and previous contributor Gavin Clark both contribute to a pair each of tracks, starting with "On A Wire" and "Falling Stars", respectively. The latter is easily the more successful offering, although both seem to suffer from a lack of polish in vocal execution (a continual gripe I have of Clark's contributions with the group). These tracks create a lull in the middle of the album, and although servicable as deep cuts, they do let the air out of the tires a bit.
"Heavy Drug" serves as a wispy instrumental segue to the second half. And fortunately songs like "Ablivion" bring a bit more solidity to some of the sounds heard earlier in the album. But it's quickly followed by "The Runaway", which after you dig through the slick production, you're just left with a rather empty husk of a song. By the time you get to "Ever Rest" you realize that there has been a bit more (if at times subtle) electronic flourishes to this record, although still in service of the alternative rock focus that began with War Stories. While the song isn't otherwise immediately rewarding, it does yield a bit more fruit with repeat listens. Which in a way could be said for the album as a whole. The more it spins the more it layers its web; but from there it's simply a matter of whether people will – or should – put in the effort to let it subtly grow. After all, this is music, not homework.
It's not that anything overtly wrong happens on the album – and in fact, there are lots of things that are quite interesting this time around. But a frustration I continue to have with their past couple of albums is that it's becoming more and more difficult to determine exactly what Unkle are trying to do, and why. Things that in the past could have been excused as "they just need to get that out of their system in order to move on" have simply stuck around. Styles have stagnated without any apparent musical endgame in sight, and the core that is there isn't necessarily revelatory. Great songs are grouped with mediocre ones; interesting musical production sits next to tracks that are good songs delivered in bland rock dress, next to others that flip that around.
It's a shame that this album doesn't present Unkle in a more interesting light, given that much of the album, and their work in the past, is interesting and unique. Is this newest release good? It's not bad. But it never seems to aim above that, instead settling for a pleasantly forgettable experience. The style of the album seems to have found a comfortable balance that incorporates sounds from their past efforts without sticking too closely to any of them (with the exception of returning vocalists, which can skew that feeling). But instead of a unique "Unkle" sound, Lavelle and co. seem to drift further into territory that has been thoroughly explored by many others before them. While the album certainly has some payoff for existing fans and those willing to give it some time, I can't help but feel that its lack of immediacy or unique focus will work against it in regards to reigning in listeners from broader circles.