Submotion Orchestra, Alium

Nate Patrin

By Nate Patrin

on 11.24.14 in Reviews

Submotion Orchestra‘s first two releases, Finest Hour and Fragments, were charming, low-key albums — at least, as low-key as a deeply dynamic take on live-band dubstep/acid-jazz crossover could be. It’s not easy to stand on the right side of the line that divides nuanced delicacy and shallow politeness, but their initial sound — all measured builds, deep immersion and the skillfully emotive vocals of lead singer Ruby Wood — showed off a fine balance between heavy club roots and noirish post-bop.

Evocative when cranking up the bass rather than the pathos

If they were ever in any danger of losing that careful balance, it’d be in the most blatant way possible: pulling those reciprocal strengths further apart into separate elements, which is what they do here. Oddly enough, the more stirring and evocative moments on Alium are the ones where they crank up the bass rather than the pathos. Opener “Awakening” strikingly pits Night Slugs-influenced stammering synths against a sole mournful trumpet; “City Lights” pushes dense multi-tracked waves of post-garage percussion against Wood’s voice to make for a potential DJ segue into your favorite Katy B track; and “Chrome Units” drops a massive sizzle/wobble synth into the foreground that makes the bassbin-rattling potential 100 percent unmistakable.

The downside is that the album’s heavy bangers only make the calmer moments sound that much more genteel. The sparser and slower the beat gets — like it does on the ruminative, melting-piano shuffle-step of “Time Will Wait” or the goopy semi-R&B slow jam “Swan Song” — the more reliant it becomes on the bass to keep it moving, and the result is often a hesitant, foot-dragging letdown. Even the better examples of downtempo torch-song excursions, like the string-drenched sleepwalk “Victim of Order” and the electric piano-driven “The Hounds,” feel too tastefully restrained to move the needle.