x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Labrinth's Electronic Earth proves a rich and varied musical exploration

Quality dips slightly later on the album, but Labrinth's talent is undeniable.

Labrinth performing on stage at KOKO in March in London.
Labrinth performing on stage at KOKO in March in London.

Labrinth
Electronic Earth
(Syco)
****

When a startlingly gifted young performer bursts on to pop's main stage, talk inevitably turns to the secretive figures lurking behind the velvet curtains, pulling industry strings, making creative decisions, perhaps even writing the songs.

The American Idol and X Factor axis has brought the machinations of these musical puppet-masters into the public domain in recent years, but their more intriguing deals occur away from the talent show tears 'n' cheers. The nascent career of 22-year-old Timothy McKenzie, aka Labrinth, is following a particularly unlikely narrative arc, seemingly switching him from savvy Svengali to pop pawn, as if one of the TV judges had opted to become a contestant instead.

The East London-born producer and vocalist was the driving force behind one of the biggest UK singles of recent years, the pulsating grime anthem Pass Out, which launched the transatlantic career of the UK rapper Tinie Tempah. Clearly one to watch, McKenzie then raised eyebrows by joining the Syco label, run by that infamous siphon of talent, Simon Cowell. Labrinth was the first Syco signing not to have graduated from a reality show, and it seemed an odd fit for an artist already making headway on his own terms.

Sadly, for those who wish ill on anything Cowell touches - and there are many - Electronic Earth turns out to be rather good, a rich and varied exploration of an expansive vision. McKenzie is clearly very much his own man, writing, performing and producing the whole record at his North London studio and imbuing the diverse results with a winning charm. The artwork may be gaudy, but the budding superstar largely refrains from arrogant bluster, letting his beats do the talking. And very eloquent they are, too.

In his notes on this record McKenzie insists that "my whole ethos is musical freedom", and he maintains the Pass Out method, smuggling intense electronic sounds under a pop umbrella. The opening salvo sets the tone, Climb On Board's thrilling two-step barrage teeing up the hit single Earthquake, which hurtles along on a grinding metallic whirr, the noise assembly-line robots would make if reprogrammed to bodypop.

The gifted producer is not so eloquent a wordsmith, in truth, and an over-reliance on auto-tune's vocal trickery suggests less confidence in front of a microphone than behind a mixing desk. That's an area Cowell can probably help with, and meanwhile McKenzie is assisted by two of the UK urban scene's hottest new acts: his previous collaborator Tempah, on Earthquake, and the Scottish singer Emeli Sandé, who adds gravitas to the grammatically suspect Beneath Your Beautiful.

That track offers a brief respite from McKenzie's up-tempo production masterclass, as his soulful warble is accompanied by good old-fashioned piano and strings until Sande's beat-backed intervention. He also flips the script on Treatment, an electro-rock stomper faintly reminiscent of Gotye's recent break-up smash Somebody That I Used to Know. "I'm insane in the membrane," he cries, harking back to Cypress Hill. "Look what you've created."

Those still searching for signs that Cowell has cowed McKenzie's muse will point to Express Yourself, a jaunty confection based on Charlie Wright's eponymous soul classic. And, yes, it may sound lazily imitative in isolation, but surrounded by such hectic beats here, the carefree vibes refresh the palate nicely.

Electronic Earth is confined to a pleasingly concise 10 tracks, but the quality still dips slightly later on. Another steal from an old classic - Janet Jackson/Joni Mitchell's Got 'Til It's Gone - fails to salvage the gritty but pedestrian Sundown, and McKenzie's rabble-rousing on the dubstep call to arms Sweet Riot doesn't quite ring true. The record then closes with an unforeseen baring of the soul, however, on the tellingly titled Vultures.

"Had a taste of the dream, come to find it's not as sweet, as I thought it would be," he muses, before wondering, "is there no one left to trust?"

Syco-analyse that at your leisure.

artslife@thenational.ae

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