UNKLE – End Titles… Redux

Lavelle's classical re-imagining scores high...

Just as the moon slowly but surely distances itself from Earth, our greatest natural satellite spiralling its own course into the great vastness of space, so too has UNKLE’s orbit about planet pop grow ever longer, ever wider.

The days of the band’s – ostensibly Mowax founder James Lavelle plus collaborators – dalliance with bona-fide mainstream markets are long gone, the group’s ‘Psyence Fiction’ debut emerging through a thick fog of hyperbole in ’98. Then, with DJ Shadow aboard, UNKLE was a beast bucking to beats unconventional, drafting in a supporting cast of utmost quality – the Beasties’ Mike D, Thom Yorke, ol’ Dickie Ashcroft – to create a record that’s near enough stood the passing of time and trends.

Since Shadow’s departure, Lavelle – subsequently partnered by Richard File for almost a decade, and now Pablo Clements – had been seen to flounder somewhat, with this year’s ‘End Titles… Stories For Film’ barely registering on the radar of all that many critics once enamoured with the man’s other-world imaginings, aesthetically rich but sonically unremarkable. Where once UNKLE had stood to mean progression, now they were but one voice in a chorus of artists from a previous millennium, each trying to have their dwindling presence felt above the roar of the contemporary.

So where to go when all forward progress is impeded by innovators born and bred in the here and now? Backwards, of course, to reinterpret works most recent in a rendering capable of withstanding any genre shifts or fickle pan-flash fortune. ‘End Titles… Redux’ takes key moments from this year’s album proper and uses them as the backbone of an ‘ambient experiment’, comprising neo-classical strings and atmospheric sweeps akin to the work of composers such as Massive Attack associate Craig Armstrong – heavy on drama and tension, but sweetly orchestrated to be accessible to those not often moved by music purely instrumental. Percussion comes in steady drips, emphasis not on the physical engagement, but one on a level more cerebral.

At times the record’s minimalist moments conjure comparisons to Philip Glass and Brian Eno and, at its more beauteous, Stars Of The Lid; when it soars, it does so with emotive force that the likes of Mono and Explosions In The Sky muster in the post-rock field. It is, at its very best, an album that silences all and can stop a man in his steps. The most pronounced vocal turn from ‘End Titles… Stories For Film’ contributor Gavin Clark, on ‘Heaven’, feels a touch unnecessary given the record’s sufficient hold without language, but the track’s slight sidestepping of cohesion and flow doesn’t overly adversely effect its whole – indeed, some will consider it a highlight, although to these ears it sits uneasy with the engrossing compositions around it. Said personal criticism is, however, the only obvious shortcoming evident after many an hour in this record’s company.

Picking ‘…Redux’ apart, laying it down as ten constituent pieces rather than a singular work, is a move likely to strip it of its magic, of the spark that catches the ear at every echoed piano note. Composer Philip Sheppard’s work with an ever-hungry Lavelle has produced what must rank as UNKLE’s most-rewarding record since their debut, an album short on pretentiousness but possessing conviction and confidence enough to deliver when odds, surely, were stacked against such an ‘experiment’ proving to be an enveloping, entertaining and enlightening listen, one that matches outward elegance with inner meticulousness. You need not be familiar with the source material to enjoy it, either.

If ever you dream of visiting the dark side of the moon, sounds from this record are sure to accompany your imaginary adventures – every step in liquid slow-motion, every glittering star above raining its luminescence down like gold dust. Somewhere in space, well, this could all be happening right now…

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