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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

Review: The Chemical Brothers at their uncompromising best

There were no epic drops. No cheesy covers. No yelled invitations to “put your hands in the air” – no words exchanged with the audience at all, in fact. For 90 frenetic, brain-bending minutes, the beat never stopped.
There were no epic drops. No cheesy covers. No yelled invitations to “put your hands in the air” – no words exchanged with the audience at all, in fact. For 90 frenetic, brain-bending minutes, the beat never stopped. Pawan Singh / The National
There were no epic drops. No cheesy covers. No yelled invitations to “put your hands in the air” – no words exchanged with the audience at all, in fact. For 90 frenetic, brain-bending minutes, the beat never stopped. Pawan Singh / The National

“Hey boy, hey girl, superstar DJs – here we go.”

And so begins The Chemical Brothers’ 1999 smash Hey Boy Hey Girl – which fittingly kicked off the British dance duo’s Abu Dhabi gig on Friday (November 25), part of the F1’s after-race concert series.

If only they knew.

Seventeen years ago the idea of a “superstar DJ” must have sounded fresh and exciting. Such a thing existed, for sure – The Chemical Brothers themselves were among the first electronic acts to enjoy rockstar fame, riding a cresting wave of dance music euphoria in 1990s Britain. But the recent US-led EDM explosion has seen the electronic music industry utterly revolutionised – and the nature and number of “superstar” DJs multiply and morph in turn, into something more brash, ubiquitous and insubstantial.

Today, Hey Boy Hey Girl’s refrain feels both quaintly antiquated and utterly prophetic of a cultural landslide to come. Perhaps not quite as soon as musical soulmates Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons expected.

Either way, The Chemical Brothers have weathered all the storms, to somehow stay it out on top. And despite the shifting sands, there was not a single concession to dance music’s overnight populism in their meaty, purist-pleasing set at Du Arena – and for this they must be congratulated.

There were no epic drops. No cheesy covers. No yelled invitations to “put your hands in the air” – no words exchanged with the audience at all, in fact. For 90 frenetic, brain-bending minutes, the beat never stopped.

Drawing liberally from across their two-decade oeuvre, this ceaseless set served an uncompromising onslaught of harsh beats and gruelling basslines – louder, harder and more rewarding than anything else which will be heard on the F1 stages this weekend. The enjoyment for many is cerebral – while at deeper, darker moments there might have been just a few souls dancing, the audience remained largely engaged, nodding earnestly in studied concentration.

These faithful were rewarded at the evening’s close, the one-two punch of set closers Galvanise and Block Rockin’ Beats – and the sudden appearance of some giant balloons bouncing around the crowd – should ensure even a casual fan went home happy.

Of course, how much of this music is actually live remains an ongoing debate, with the audio spectacle complemented by a carefully synchronised visual experience. But rather than the epic, swirling sensory showdowns associated with many DJ gigs – say for example, Armin van Buuren, who broke the mould as the first electronic act to play the F1 two years ago – The Chemical Brothers deploy their screen work with the same sharp, economical force as their beats; austere, framed, monochrome stick figures, dancing cyborgs, crawling ants and geometrical lines.

The music is mirrored in its iconography – faceless, cold and detached, its authors little more than silhouettes bobbing behind the rafts of electronic gear. If Rowlands and Simons had come out after the gig and stood patiently in the exit queue, precious few in the audience would recognise them.

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: November 26, 2016 04:00 AM

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