Bonobo Dial M for Monkey

[Ninja Tune; 2003]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: instrumental downtempo, cinematic hip hop, acid jazz, soundtracks
Others: Flanger, Cinematic Orchestra, DJ Vadim, RJD2


Mercifully, the term “trip-hop” has become passé in the music industry, although it has been replaced by the equally vague, albeit more innocuous moniker “downtempo.”  Ninja Tune Records have been purveyors of downtempo throughout its development, and have somehow managed to remain fresh and innovative with regard to the genre.  With a roster of acts featuring perennial downtempo staples such as Amon Tobin, DJ Vadim, Herbaliser, etc., Ninja Tune have consistently been the whipping boys of the music press””frequently pigeonholed as nothing more than a retro-minded “trip-hop” label.  I’ve never quite been able to understand this, as there will obviously always be a niche market for downtempo; and Ninja Tune, frankly, are at the top of their game.  Recent acts such as Bonobo, Cinematic Orchestra, Jaga Jazzist, and Fog have demonstrated Ninja Tune’s obvious commitment to expanding their reach, and determination to evolve, musically speaking.

Bonobo is DJ, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Simon Green, a Brighton native whose music, in a nutshell, is sample-based downtempo electronica with a notably heavy jazz influence.  A completely instrumental outfit, the effectiveness of Bonobo’s music lies in Green’s ability to construct these tracks in an original and creative enough manner that they are able to transcend the limitations imposed by the genre.  Green uses real breakbeats in Bonobo’s music, and it makes a tremendous difference: while many contemporary downtempo artists prefer to sequence and program their own drums, Bonobo’s use of sampled breakbeats adds an acoustic element to the music that helps it flow and, at the same time, gives it a more natural feel.  In fact, the samples add enough of an organic element to the music that, at times, Dial M for Monkey sounds more like live, instrumental jazz than it does typical, sample-based electronic “chill-out” music.  Bonobo’s music works in this context because, while melodic, it also possesses a cinematic quality that effectively transports the listener to another place, so to speak.

“Noctuary” opens the album, and, although not the gloomfest that the title implies, the electric piano and harp, which are featured on this track, add a drowsy, nocturnal element to the proceedings.  The second track, “Flutter” is stylistically similar to Cinematic Orchestra with its noirish overtones and jazzy, smoky arrangements.  Exotic instrumentation adds to the song’s charm as well, and demonstrates Bonobo’s adept ability to create brooding, hazy soundscapes, albeit with a beat. 

Subtle Latin percussion and a slightly funky bassline begin “D Song,” which is arguably the album’s centerpiece.  A tremoloed, circa-1970-sounding Fender Rhodes carries the melody of the song, and the breakbeat has a completely live and natural feel to it.  Green has obviously refined the art of crate digging down to a science from the sound of this particular track.  Downtempo in the strict sense of the word, this song almost recalls The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm,” with its laid-back, rainy day feel and soporific, echo-laden electric piano.  A moody, mesmerizing track, “D Song” produces an almost narcotic effect on the listener.  Furthermore, there is a great deal of emotional substance to the arrangement.  “Change Down,” the fourth track, is an equally cinematic piece with a slightly loungey, Eastern flavor to it.  A subtle, sampled koto melody subtly enters the mix, and buried even deeper below the surface of the music lies what sounds like a sitar as well.  The breakbeat on this track is smooth as silk, and fits the music perfectly.  Jazz guitar, harpsichord, and some beautiful vibraphone are featured on “Wayward Bob,” a track in which subtle vinyl needle noise adds incidental warmth and atmosphere.

The flute is an instrument which has earned a prominent place in Bonobo’s music.  Animal Magic, the first Bonobo record, made liberal use of the flute, and here it is featured on “Pick Up,” a piece which recalls early fusion jazz.  On “Nothing Owed,” the album’s eighth track, the clarinet is, interestingly, used in much the same way Green frequently uses the flute.  Another key element of Bonobo’s music which, tangentially, is a pretty significant element of Bonobo’s appeal is the sound of vinyl.  As this is primarily sample-based music, vinyl pops and crackles add a softer, more organic sound to the tracks.

Bonobo’s music can be safely compared to the soundtrack scores of Angelo Badalamenti, Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini, and others, although it is also similar, musically, to contemporary artists such as Broadway Project, Cinematic Orchestra, and early DJ Krush.  It is infused with a haunting, noirish element which conjures up images of smoky jazz clubs.  Bonobo manage to create an exquisitely sultry and cinematic atmosphere, although sounding like less of a band effort than Cinematic Orchestra.  But buried beneath the smoke haze there is a dance element which periodically surfaces.  Bonobo’s music wants to be playful at times, and the hard-hitting breakbeats unearthed by Simon Green frequently speed up the tempo of the tracks to the point where it’s not too much of a stretch to classify it as “dance music.”

At its worst, downtempo can be simply turgid in its showcasing of trite samples and overused rhythms.  At its best, however, it can demonstrate the artist’s skills and patience in finding just the right sound or sample for the music.  Simon Green has clearly been gifted with a deftness in constructing a series of pieces which sound more like jazz compositions than snippets of jazz samples held tenuously together by a common (or not-so-common) theme.  As long as Bonobo continue releasing consistently strong records such as this one and their debut, the genre of downtempo and labels like Ninja Tune Records will always have artists of which to boast and be proud.  Buy this album, and let it transport you somewhere.

1. Noctuary
2. Flutter
3. D Song
4. Change Down
5. Wayward Bob
6. Pick Up
7. Something for Windy
8. Nothing Owed
9. Light Pattern