Groove Armada’s Black Light is a hard album to review, as it’s really not a Groove Armada album. It’s such a shift away from the upbeat sound that we know of the UK duo that, to the casual listener, it would be impossible to pick as the same folks that produced “If Everybody Looked The Same” or “Love Sweet Sound”. Not only is it a paradigm shift in tone, it’s a shift in vocal styles, production, and focus.
This is an album with obvious love for ’80s Synthpop such as Gary Numan, Heaven 17 or New Order. While it’s thick with layers of synthesizers, it’s packaged as a much more song-based album. This ain’t the same GA that created “I See You Baby”. From the rough and rocky opener “Look Me In The Eye Sister” to a Dub-infused “Time and Space” this is an album that is packed full of catchy riffs and moments of a new and powerful sound that GA has not shown before.
The production of Black Light is top notch, from the heavy reverb helping to create the classic 80’s snares and claps, through to the general ambience that permeates every track. The synths are suitably weighted and bring a real rock aesthetic to proceedings. The move away from obvious drum loops move Grove Armada well away from their perch in the dance field into more mainstream pop territory. This is going to be the real test; such a massive change is going to alienate some die-hard GA fans, while bringing others on board. There were moments while listening to Black Light that I honestly thought I was listening to some other group. It feels like a collage of many other groups that have jumped on the ’80s revival bandwagon. Nick Littlemore is an acquired taste, and his signature vocal style sounds rough and out of place in many of the tracks. Throughout his featured songs I couldn’t help but feel that GA were attempting to emulate Empire Of The Sun. “Paper Romance” has already started to get radio play in conjunction with ‘We The People’, so much so that it’s hard to hear them apart.
Where GA pulls ahead of the pack is their quality riffs and, as usual, they deliver some knockout moments on Black Light. “Just For Tonight” is a classy throwback to a more Echo and the Bunnymen era of melancholy songwriting. The fantastic “Shameless” is a crisp and heavily produced track that straddles both ethereal ambience and urban aesthetic, with Bryan Ferry being the only part of the track that seems out of place. “Cards To Your Heart” breaks into a sublime synth line during the chorus that is capable of transcending the genre. However, to get there you have to battle through spoken word verses that bring the listener crashing back to earth.
It would have been nice to have had a track or two without vocals on Black Light. Andy and Tom have a knack for knowing their way around a quality tune, it’s a shame that so many of their ideas on this album are covered by singing that just seems out of place. The production is tight as always, and has both a feeling of heavy post processing a la MGMT, as well as an emphasis on solid sound. There’s no room for subtlety on Black Light.
As a movement into a brave new style of songwriting and sound I applaud their drive and determination. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is going to be to GA what 10,000 Hz Legend was to Air; an album that set out to move in a new direction that lost their signature sound in the process. There are many moments to love on this album. However, I couldn’t help but return to listening to earlier albums by Groove Armada after every listen through Black Light.