In the eight years since the release of their stunningly lush debut, Simple Things, English electronica duo Zero 7 (production whizzes Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker) has been a mainstay of the chillout music scene, gracing compilations and film soundtracks alongside the likes of Air and Thievery Corporation. During that time, the band perfected a signature sound: ambient soundscapes, breathy female vocals, and looped atmospheric sounds.
But if there was a knock against the talented Brits, it was that their sound could be too chillaxed for its own good. This was the case on 2004s merely adequate When It Falls. Things improved for 2006s The Garden, but that album, too, hewed fairly close to the duos traditional formula.
On its latest release the eclectic, if uneven Yeah Ghost Zero 7 depart significantly from its normal routine. The change is helped along by the absence of the bands longtime collaborator Sia, who sang on all of the groups previous albums (also absent are vocalists Mozez and Jose Gonzalez). Three new singers step in to fill the void: Jackie Daniels, Martha Tilston, and London-based Zimbabwean, Eska Mtungwazi. And on Everything Up (Zizou), Binns takes on vocal duties himself. The result is an album with a diverse, vibrant sound, one that occasionally hits the bands previous highs. But the new diversity of sound makes it hard to find one overarching theme or sound that makes the album cohere as a whole. Its an enjoyable collection of songs that doesnt quite seem to fit together.
Swing, which features Daniels on vocals, is delectable electro-pop with handclaps that accent the songs shimmering chorus. On lead single Medicine Man, Mtungwazi sings over a bed of disco-fied beats, which marks a significant departure from the bands traditional sound. But its Mtungwazis voice that gives the chorus a heft not previously seen on Zero 7 songs. Indeed, her presence infuses the bands sound with a new life and soulfulness. The rave up Sleeper (another song on which Mtungwazi sings) is one more example of the band moving out of its downtempo comfort zone.
Everything Up (Zizou), a paean inspired by retired French football star Zinedine Zidane (nicknamed Zizou), is probably the albums best marriage of the old and new Zero 7, with trippy sound effects linked up to a skittering beat. Binns vocals are more than passable; they’re buoyant. (Perhaps he was happy to finally move from behind the studio controls.)
Pop Art Blue is easily the highlight of the album. A confection of electronic chamber pop with a hint of folk, the song builds momentum until layered vocals intertwine with percussion in mesmerizing fashion. The glitchy Ghost Symbol, with its vaguely Eastern soundscape of mangled vocals, recalls Kruder and Dorfmeister or Tosca.
As on previous albums, the band also includes a handful of instrumentals, the best of which is All of Us. A largely ambient piece, the song builds momentum via layers of sound, channeling Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada. Muted chants and eerie sonic effects punctuate the two-minute Solastalgia. The Road, on which Mtungwazi once again takes vocal duties, is a meditative, gospel-influenced hymn that echoes the bands work with Mozez.
Rounding out the album are two remixes of Everything Up (Zizou): Joker and Ginz gleaming take on the song, and Mock and Toofs more traditional techno treatment.
Four albums into its career, Zero 7 still has an ear for a good pop song. And though the album doesnt hang together as well as previous efforts, its hard to quibble with their curiosity and desire for experimentation.