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Review: Disclosure Shoot For the Stars, Land in the Middle of the Road on ‘Caracal’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 25, 2015
Label: Island Universal

Disclosure’s landmark 2013 debut, Settle, opened with a scorched-earth policy. On “When a Fire Starts to Burn,” Guy and Howard Lawrence set a hammering, breakneck tempo for a vocal sample from Eric Thomas, the self-proclaimed “Hip-Hop Preacher,” who sounds like he’s gasping after every line from the effort of trying to keep up with the banger itself. The British siblings faced a similar risk of being outpaced in their own rise to behind-the-boards fame: the “fire” they helped spread was the redefinition and popularization of the genre deep house, which shaped how a new generation of ravers understood “underground” dance music that still toppled worldwide charts.

Behold, then, their own game-change: “Nocturnal,” the Weeknd’s shimmering, night-driven odyssey of booming kick drums, which opens their sophomore album, Caracal. This time, they’ve stepped out of the driver’s seat into more of a mechanic’s role, letting whomever’s at the wheel decide the speed — and whether or not they take the scenic route.

While Settle was very much the Howard Brothers’ show — a collection of pleasurably painful, neck-snapping beats to rock (your body and) even the most reinforced of club walls, with vocalists to soften the edges just enough for EDM fans to touch without getting hurt — Caracal is all about Disclosure’s guests of honor. As they said in an interview earlier this summer, the writing process for this album was very much collaborative, and it shows: only two tracks (“Jaded” and “Echoes”) do not list credited singers, while the rest feature notable names (Miguel, Lorde, Sam Smith) and hot-off-the-SEO-presses newcomers (Lion Babe, Kwabs). Of the cue-confetti album closer “Masterpiece,” which showcases the relatively unknown Australian singer Jordan Rakei, Guy said, “We were like, “F–k it, this is the point where the album is beginning to not just be house, [but] loads of things.”

Though this isn’t much different from Settle’s strategy, on that album Disclosure brought along only those who could keep up with their breakaway train. On Caracal, the tracks have been slowed-down and simultaneously keyed-up, to fill an amphitheater rather than a club — and to bust through the Billboard 200, not unlike what Abel Tesfaye has done with Beauty Behind the Madness, rather than simply topping dance charts all over the globe. Sure, a lot of listeners were probably baited with Disclosure’s one-offs — like the whiplash-inducing weapon of dance floor destruction, “Apollo,” or the 313 Bass Mechanics-sampling jerker “Bang That” (which does appear on Caracal as a bonus track) — and the backlash will likely continue to be mercilessly disappointed not to have more of that. But, as Lorde sings on the feelings-trawling “Magnets,” “Let’s embrace the point of no return.”

That said, buyer beware: As dance music historian Michaelangelo Matos put it in his review of Caracal and regarding deep house as a genre, Disclosure may have drawn a line in the sand, for millennial listeners who have never heard of Theo Parrish, Kerri Chandler, or any of the DJs the Howards cite as their influences — but they are the first ones to cross it. Because they have consistently grown as producers, these are heftier tracks that, because of their added weight, move slower; and like any collection of thematically linked subwoofer-challenging, chart-charting songs, some feel a little Skyped-in — or at least tailored a little too much to their guiding spotlights.

“Superego,” with its blown-bubbles synths and coasting non-chorus, does little for either Disclosure or rising talent and Kwabs affiliate Nao. Though “Good Intentions” features Miguel, it catwalks an awkward middle ground between four-on-the-floor thump and the Los Angeles crooner’s heart-on-his-leather-sleeve odes to morning sex; except in this case, the jacket doesn’t quite fit. And no matter how often Disclosure says they didn’t want to make another “Latch” with “Omen,” they still made “Latch Lite.” Jonas Rathsman and Claude VonStroke gave the track more breath (and booty) in their remixes.

Others work much, much better to showcase both artists at the top of their game. “Jaded” showcases Howard’s burgeoning confidence behind the microphone as he sings over a sassy, seesawing beat, subtweeting fellow beatmakers (““When it’s there in black and white for all to see / We sow and you reap”) who claim credit for others’ due diligence in knob-twiddling. “Holding On,” featuring jazz great Gregory Porter, may be the fieriest track on the record, his urgent last syllable howling into and out of the void over what might in a few years be considered “classic Disclosure,” a skittering beat and stirring, subterranean key chords. The same can be said of “Hourglass,” which utilizes Lion Babe’s Jillian Hervey much like “White Noise” did AlunaGeorge’s Aluna Francis, backlighting her with those haunting bass keys and a buoyant backbeat.

In many ways, Disclosure are the victims of their own success on Caracal. As pioneers of a genre reinvention, that’s what they will forever be associated with, and it’s hard to break mindsets around where certain kinds of dance music and their creators fit in the mainstream. But the Howard brothers remain peerless as producers, and, if anything, their sophomore album’s overtures to pop-friendliness breaks even more walls for them going forward. So boys, please, keep banging that.