Malachai: Return To The Ugly Side Review
Bristol duo Malachai (formerly Malachai) have been the recipients of a number of categorical signifiers ever since last year’s debut The Ugly Side of Love, a thrilling, albeit imperfect, complex pop confection. Some called it a return to 90’s trip hop. Others, “psychedelic rock” “dubstep,” or “glam fusion.” And the truth is Malachai is all of these things and none. While they certainly employ elements of all of these genres, trying to limit them to a single label wouldn’t be painting a complete picture. Members Gee Ealey and Scott Hendy mix and match elements to the point that no single factor really emerges as the dominant force. There are hard hitting hip hop inspired rhythms, moody synths, guitars that evoke the gamut of 70’s British prog/rock from King Crimson to T Rex, as well as modern electronic flourishes like pitch distortion and sampling. What it all adds up to is difficult to say, but it is certainly more than the band has thus far been critically afforded.
And now that the band’s second album Return to the Ugly Side has emerged, it certainly hasn’t made it any easier. The new material tunes down the sampling while tuning up the beats, working closer to a loud/soft trip hop cadence while at the same time pumping enough gonzo rock into the mix to keep the spectre of 90’s Bristol at bay. Lead track “Monster” is a symphonic string overture that reappears seven songs later in “Monster,” both of which contain a flair for the epic that displays the duo’s ambition for a huge sound. And where Heady and Ealey capitalize on that sense of grandness is precisely where they succeed the most. The scuzzy rock and roll largesse of tunes like “Anne,” “Mid Antartica,” dubby “My Ambulance,” and “The Don’t Just,” lead a pack of grandiose singles. And not ones to shirk their sensitive sides, the duo also reprises the melancholy psychedelia that worked so well in last year’s standout tune “Fading World.” In this bent, Malachai enlisted female vocalist Katy Wainwright to lend “Rainbows” a beautiful sense of floatiness, as if the song itself exists in a blissful, drugged-out stupor. And the boys are also able to pull it off without outside help in “No More Rain, No Maureen.”
While the fourteen tracks of Return add up to a pretty satisfying listen, it may ultimately suffer at the hands of inevitable My Dark Twisted Fantasy comparisons. It might seem improbable first, but both Kanye and Malachai share a predilection for hip hop beats, prog references, and the gloominess of isolation. Both also share a common weakness for somewhat simplistic lyricism. And since the world has seemingly united in its declaration of MDTF as the future of all things hip hop/prog/melancholy, et al. it isn’t too difficult to see how Malachai could in turn be seen as less forward thinking or bold. And making that argument may win you some points. However taken on its own merit, Return to The Ugly Side is a very strong album from a group that is bold in a different, not necessarily lesser way. It may look backwards as much as it does to the future, but when it does so it looks with fresh eyes that look for new takes on old concepts.
— Jon Behm
Return To The Ugly Side will be available on 2/22 via Domino Records.