The future isn't what it used to be...
The last time Leftfield released an album, things were very different. In 1995, when their debut Leftism was released, dance music was so potent a force it seemed it would turn the world upside down. Clubs from Barnsley to Brixton could spin obscure New York house and happily expect to be in breach of their fire limits; new genres such as drum'n'bass and trip-hop were still regarded as a good idea and everyone from policemen to politicians recognised the need to get to grips with an apparently society-threatening new youth cult.
Amid all this excitement stood Paul Daley and Neil Barnes, two London thirtysomethings as self-effacing as it's possible to be while still existing. Incredibly, these dub-obsessed, ex-bongo players would, briefly, be dance's Blur and Oasis.
A trio of singles - 1991's Not Forgotten remix, 1992's Release The Pressure and, a year later, Song For Life - broke the dancefloor tyranny of Italian and American piano-led grooves and homegrown rave anthems, to set a template for the first identifiably British take on acid house. Mixing dub, Chicago house and European synthesizers, Leftfield were pounding and epic, simultaneously evoking blissful dance parties in the hills of Ibiza as well as scary warehouse events in the depths of London's East End. Viewed by apprentice disco knob twiddlers as paragons of production quality, Leftfield were embraced by shaven-headed techno DJs and silky-shirted handbagateers alike. It's no stretch to trace today's dancefloor mania for high energy trance back to Daley and Barnes.
In 1995, despite earlier, small-scale albums by both Underworld and Orbital, Leftfield were the only contenders capable of turning clubland's massive audience into album sales. Half a million copies later, Leftism proved dance music could make the journey from dancefloor to bedroom without boring everyone and in the process made electronica's assault on America a possibility.
In fact, it's fair to say that Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx owe Leftfield a drink. Orbital and Underworld probably owe them their careers.
BUT THAT WAS YEARS ago and while dance compilations still sell and clubs still heave, dance music has ceased to evolve. Drum'n'bass and trip-hop have been sent home early, while The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim have pinched all the acid house thrills and energy they need and cannily slipped out through the door marked "pop". Meanwhile, Leftfield's audience, bombed out of their minds four years ago, are now paying off mortgages and listening to Dean Martin.
Which all goes to make it a challenging time for Leftfield to re-emerge. To make matters worse, a nervous Barnes (38) and Daley (36) have spent three fretful years (one fiddling about, two recording) teasing Rhythm & Stealth into shape. They spent three years on Leftism too, but back then no-one was counting.
As late as 1998, new tracks were dismissed as out of date, as Daley became enamoured of Nu Skool Breaks, the dancefloor fad that resembles big beat with the fun taken out. Never the most communicative of coves, Daley kept fiddling while his hapless partner could only sit by and fume. Almost everything was scrapped and they had to start all over again.
But now, at last, it's here, and just like Leftism's Release The Pressure, the opening track Dusted introduces Rhythm & Stealth with a salvo of ragga-infused guff about the power of the inner eye, voiced by Stockwell rapper Roots Manuva. Booming effects scamper from speaker to speaker as vocoder snippets, crinkly guitar sample and an odd zinging noise prove Leftfield are still au fait with texture and nuance. With Manuva draping himself over a languorous hip hop rhythm, Dusted resembles Daft Punk's Da Funk enjoying a restful jazz ciggie on its day off.
But it's the second track that cracks the mould and suggests a future direction for the tortured duo. A rip-snortin' techno gallop, Phat Planet twists round a brutal, two-note electric bass line, a sweaty, stop-start drum loop and what sounds like an industrial Hoover sucking up a bag of nails at the back of the studio. The album's most vital and modern track, it lies somewhere between the sandpaper rasp of Aphex Twin's Window Licker and The Prodigy's irresistible Firestarter. Played at full volume, it sounds incredible.
Which makes it all the more peculiar that Phat Planet appeared in the shops as a limited-edition 10-inch single only after it soundtracked director Jonathan Glazer's surfing Guinness advertisement. It's hard to fathom why an act so credibility-obsessed should do a Flat Eric and use their best track as a jingle for stout, however stylish the context. Leftfield tracks also adorn rubbish Ewan McGregor and Anna Friel vehicle Rogue Trader, plus Los Angeles rave film Go. A tribute to the cinematic quality of their compositions? Or further evidence of a crisis of confidence?
Whatever the thinking behind those decisions, it's obvious that three years in the studio has shaken Leftfield's nerve. Elsewhere, the hard shell of production pioneered on Leftism - sternum rupturing bass and grandiose dub - is revisited on Rhythm & Stealth: mid-paced dub workouts, dancefloor assaults and ambient interludes appear in roughly the same ratio this time round.
Afrika Bambaataa assumes the role of John Lydon (singer on their biggest hit, Open Up), guesting on second single Afrika Shox, a slice of electro given a trancy ride around the block. Distortedly babbling about millennial angst, Bambaataa sounds like an apocalyptic Mark E. Smith relocated to The Bronx. Daley's DJ spots at London nightclubs Friction and Funked clearly haven't been a waste of his weekends, as the vocoder voice effects and some nostalgic electro bleeping make for a glinting nugget of funk.
On the functional tracks - whether chillout lullabies or dance stompers - Leftfield's production chops prove the self-proclaimed "sound fashionists" can still make a party go with a swing, or persuade everyone to calm down before something gets broken. The metallic techno of Double Flash is steely in all the right places, although, like everything here, its panoramic effects are probably better served by one of Leftfield's own Olympic-sized bass bins, rather than any home hi-fi. The seven minutes of El Cid, meanwhile, is as dreamily aimless as a hot afternoon in a hammock: sonorous synthesizers amble by, vocal effects mumble in the distance and tinkly percussion ding-a-lings like wind chimes.
But it's on Leftfield's slow motion songs - represented last time around by Original (sung by a bewitching Toni Halliday) and the radiant Song For Life - that the battle to live up to Leftism is fought and lost. Swords, featuring singer Nicole Willis (who's appeared with Curtis Mayfield) is a technically accomplished, limply grooving non-song. Reno's Prayer, which under-utilises the talents of Rino Della Volpe, singer with North African/Neopolitan world music group Almamegretta, starts promisingly with a dusky Arabian introduction of burbling bass and devotional wailing,but drifts until it sounds like exotica-lite in a Ridley Scott sci-fi film.
Unfortunately, the rest of Rhythm & Stealth amounts to a collection of tuneless, overwrought outtakes from Leftism. The watery, digital reggae of Chant Of A Poorman, featuring long-time collaborator Cheshire Cat, is meandering, irie-spouting, dub hokum and 6/8 War is lumpen techno slowed down by a belligerent drum track. But the greatest crime is Dub Gussett, whose title suggests the band themselves think this makeweight tune isn't quite the ticket. In fact, it's simply the rhythm track from 1993's Song For Life, loaded up on edgy synthesizers and given a half-hearted trance once-over. After three years in the studio, such chicanery is a touch pathetic.
LIKE ORBITAL AND UNDERWORLD, two more dance heavyweights that have produced disappointing albums this year, Leftfield have become victims of their own propaganda. By allowing themselves to be billed as the music of the future, they have nowhere to go now they sound too familiar. The future they once promised is now. And there's no getting away from it, it just doesn't sound like Leftfield.
*** (out of 5)
review by Andy Pemberton (nicked from 'Q', dated September 1999)