The British seaside city of Bristol has long played host to excellent music, but it’s perhaps most famous as the birthplace of trip-hop and home to the genre’s originators: Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky. Championed by Geoff Barrow, the mastermind behind Portishead, Malachai is among the latest batch of musicians to crop up in the city’s crowded scene. Armed with a captivating, diverse sound that’s equally rooted in trip-hop, classic psychedelia, and experimental hip-hop, the duo’s initial work was enough to coax Barrow into overseeing production on their marvelous first album, 2009’s The Ugly Side of Love. The Bristol duo’s first album took listeners on a speedy (though at times rushed and unfocused) ride through 60’s psychedelic pop, 70’s prog, and 90’s electronica that showed a ton of promise.
Much of that promise is delivered on over the course of this very satisfying follow-up. Return to the Ugly Side retains the sharp, incisive nature of record number one; no track is longer than four minutes, and there’s hardly a wasted moment, song, or riff to be found. Return to the Ugly Side shares more than links to a title with its predecessor, though; it’s essentially another crack at what the duo didn’t fully get around to the first time. The strut-stomp of the last album’s buzz single, “Snowflake”, is updated and re-purposed in the thudding backbeat of “Mid Antarctica (Wearin’ Sandals)”, while the clattering percussion and nasal vocals of “Anne” instantly call to mind the Beatles circa Revolver in ways “How Long” and “Lay Down Stay Down” off of record number one couldn’t quite reach.
This time around, the boys from Bristol have learned to balance their dense blend of psychedelic pop and buzzing electronics with some subtlety, a change that brings an exciting duality to the surface on Return. On lead single “Rainbows”, for instance, frontman Gee channels a dreamy Donovan over a starry-eyed guitar line, with guest vocal help from Katy Wainwright. Just as soon as that draws to a close, though, the duo nimbly shifts gears into the spacey interlude that is “In the Hole”, which leads right into the thick percussion of “(My) Ambulance”. Towards the end of the Ugly Side‘s wild second half, Gee gets soulful on “How You Write”, half-attempting a croon over spaghetti western whistles and strings, before abruptly dropping into the tripped-out synth bleeps and big-beat drums of album highlight “Let ‘Em Fall” without the slightest of hitches. The adept production of Scott, the duo’s quieter half, has a big hand in these seismic shifts that occur without warning throughout Return, often mid-song.
Much of what makes Return to the Ugly Side a success is its sincerity to the duo’s source material. While many of their peers seem to be caught up in toying around with increasingly ironic and quirky genres from bygone eras (and often winding up with clumsy nostalgia), the candor with which Malachai delivers their awesome fusion of Nuggets psych-rock and warped trip-hop is all the more refreshing. Even though their second album probably won’t make too many waves, Malachai’s Return to the Ugly Side is a success on many levels, as the Bristol duo manages to piece together a simultaneously inventive and evocative record that builds on their very quality debut.