The British producer Simon Green, better known by his longstanding Bonobo alias, is one of those few artists who successfully executed the transition from bedroom beatsmith to big-ticket draw. For two decades, he’s made his home on the iconic Ninja Tune label, joining as part of the ‘second wave’ of artists, as the label moved from being the outlet for the various side projects of the Coldcut duo, and became synonymous with the kind of smoky, downtempo jazz-infused beat-driven explorations that swiftly went from underground to ubiquitous at the turn of the millennium.
Since then, Bonobo’s incorporated a wide variety of live instrumentation into his compositions, partnered with an eclectic range of vocalists, and decamped to Los Angeles. And while his musical horizons have expanded to encompass a broader, more global focus, to some ears this may have had the effect of watering down his sound – switching out the zany crate-digging playfulness for something more palatable to a bigger, festival-going audience. Indeed, the cover art for Fragments resembles the kind of image one might see on a poster in a backpackers’ bar, emblazoned with a corny inspirational quote.
Fortunately the music is more interesting and authentic than that. Thanks to Bonobo’s skilfulness as a producer and arranger, the vistas afforded by Fragments are lush and richly detailed enough to lose oneself in, with energy levels pitched perfectly in the sweet spot between chilled and energising, so you can let the music take you up or down depending on mood. This may be a lucky happenstance, as due to the pandemic most of the tracks on Fragments are untested, in the sense that Bonobo had little opportunity to drop them in DJ sets and gauge the crowd’s reaction; a process he’s suggested is often surprisingly illuminating for identifying unlikely dancefloor favourites.
Untested or not, it’s impossible to imagine a track like ‘Otomo’ failing to ignite a crowd’s energy; an insistent kick drum is propelled onwards by a rattling breakbeat, as a choral sample builds in intensity (possibly the same Bulgarian choir Bicep sampled for Apricots), as more voices join the chant. In an elegant execution of ‘dynamic shift’, which Bonobo achieved by enlisting the help of fellow producer O’Flynn, the track pulls out for the breakdown only to lurch back all guns blazing for a thumping drop, the effortlessness of the transition belying its elegance. ‘Counterpart’ is another track that ends in a very different place to where it began; gentle chords, marimba percussion and softly plucked harp strings are joined by wordless vocal samples – all sounding very Four Tet – until a growling synth winds its way into the mix, gradually morphing into a pulsing acid line, which somehow still works with the harp strings.
‘Age of Phase’ is yet another example, again harking back to ‘There is Love in You’-era Four Tet, when Kieran Hebden started bolstering his feathery compositions with a pumping house kick. Bonobo lets a vocal sample do most of the heavy lifting vibe-wise, taking us to that state of breathy anticipation that precedes full-on euphoria, before easing us back down with a synth-driven beat. Unfortunately the dreamy fade out is marred by the incursion of the following track, ‘From You’, a cheesy R’n’B slow jam – and a symptom maybe of Bonobo’s wish to try and please everyone.
Unlike many artists, who used the surfeit of free time provided by the pandemic to record prolifically, Bonobo found himself beset by writers’ block. With the world falling silent, he found he had “nothing to say” in the studio. So he looked to nature for inspiration, taking hikes into the desert of Southern California. Synthesising the organic and electronic has been key to Bonobo’s music for many years, and two key factors played a lead in the creation of Fragments. First were Green’s experiments with modular synthesis, programming parameters and letting the synths generate a random (but controlled) pattern of sounds, from which he could then draw samples. The second was the harp playing of Lara Somogyi, who recorded her own compositions for Bonobo to then manipulate as he pleased. The sound of tweaked and plucked strings appears all over Fragments, from the opening notes to intro track, ‘Polyghost’ to midpoint interlude, ‘Elysian’ to the aforementioned ‘Counterpoint’.
It’s Bonobo’s mastery at blending these twin elements, melding the unpredictable and artificial sounds of modular synthesis with harp strings (as well as a plethora of other organic instrumentation), as well as his instinctive control of mood and energy, that make his music so appealing. And makes Fragments such a versatile album. My only criticism is that Green occasionally runs the risk of trading pleasantness for blandness. And for sure, any listeners hoping to be challenged or taken out of their comfort zone should probably look elsewhere. But for those in search of expansive soundscapes that heighten the anticipation of spring evenings and good times to come, Fragments is ideal.