It is common knowledge that the glory days of electronica are over. The entire genre of music has been folded up into pop and dance music, and few original producers are still around solely making the music that changed everything over a decade ago. One survivor, however, is Hybrid, a Welsh duo (Mike Truman and Chris Healings) who have been pioneers of electronica since the release of their first studio album and landmark masterpiece, Wide Angle. They went on to produce two more albums, all well-respected and charting a path for progressive breaks throughout the last decade, and have made a mark by being one of the only electronic producers who still perform in a traditional, live band set-up. In addition to their three studio albums, Hybrid's music has appeared in hundreds of other places, from frequent inclusions on the BBC's Top Gear to the orchestral soundtracks of films like Man on Fire and Catacombs, not to mention the vast library of remixes they have put out. Now, in the midst of what many consider to be electronica's death throes, the group has released a fourth album, Disappear Here, but have they too gone the way of pop and dance, or are they still pioneering the uncharted waters of a genre that will never really die?
The biggest change from their previous efforts is the addition of a third member, Charlotte James, who provides vocals on most of the songs on Disappear Here as well as contributing in the songwriting process. While Hybrid has done tracks with vocals in the past, they have never had so many on a single album before (indeed, there are only two instumental tracks), and this will no doubt be the biggest point of contention among fans. I for one have no problem with it, as James is a beautiful singer, but many diehard electronica junkies will feel a little abandoned. I will concede that there are one or two songs where the vocals and lyrics feel unsophisticated and perhaps even a little annoying, such as "Can You Hear Me Now," a song with a repetitive question that almost dares you to respond, "Yes, now tell me what you have to say already!"
Hybrid (from left to right): Chris Healings, Charlotte James, and Mike Truman
But at the end of the day, Hybrid is still Hybrid. The majority of the songs are still epic and dark, with a heavy emphasis on real orchestrations and driving, intense beats. In true Hybrid fashion, they also still play with their own formula, creating a couple of tracks that are very unlike anything they've ever done before. For example, the closing track, "Numb," is a slow and melodic anthem punctuated by a melancholy piano and some of James' most emotional lyrics, while "Take a Fall" takes a few cues from jungle music.
The greatest songs on the album, though, are defined by the kinds of things Hybrid does best. "Empire," "Original Sin," and of course "Break My Soul" are deep full-frontal assaults of sound, with heavy strings, minor chords, and beats that will tear your head off. "Formula of Fear" and "Salt" are slightly faster and more driving, while "Disappear Here" and "Every Word" are slower and more melodic. There are also one or two tracks that are definitely Hybrid, like "Green Shell Suit."
The orchestrations by Andrew Skeet and the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra (with some arrangements coming from James and Truman), which appear in every song, are awesome in and of themselves. It should also be noted that the new third bandmember, James, not only provides vocals, lyrics, and helps with the songwriting, but she also plays an impressive range of live instruments throughout the album, including keyboards, pianos, guitars, and cellos. She also isn't the only voice on Disappear Here, as newcomer Tim Hutton provides good work in "Take a Fall" (and mediocre work in "Can You Hear Me Now"), though his lyrics aren't very deep.
The rave definitely isn't over yet
While this album seems especially geared towards live performances--with real drums, accoustic guitars, and the obligatory string sections--don't think for a minute that Hybrid has forsaken electronica. Every sample and effect is carefully placed and punctuated by deep synthetic sounds throughout. Even the vocals get some cool makeovers, especially in the title track "Disappear Here" (and I'm not talking about auto-tuning).
There is a case to be made that Hybrid has continued to evolve, and despite the impression the added vocals might give--that they have embraced pop sensibilities--Hybrid is still setting the standard for modern electronic music. Having said that, it is hard to argue that this album is better than Wide Angle, but that has more to do with how great Wide Angle is than how lacking Disappear Here might be. I will say that Disappear Here succeeds in a few places where Wide Angle fails. For instance, the tracks in Disappear Here, though they are varied, are far more cohesive and bound by more connective tissue than the more disparate tracks of Wide Angle or any other Hybrid album.
Fans of Hybrid should definitely pick this one up, no question. But even if you've never listened to a Hybrid album before, there are plenty of reasons for you to get it as well. Hybrid produced a video for the star track, "Break My Soul," and it is freely available on the album's official website and on YouTube (embedded below for your convenience!). I highly recommend at the very least listening to this song as it almost perfectly exemplifies what the album is about. It is dark and ferocious, experimental and cinematic, beautiful and stirring, melodic and electronic, and irrefutably Hybrid.
While not as stellar as Wide Angle, Disappear Here is still a great album and irrefutable proof that intelligent electronica is far from dead.