For better or worse, it isn't 1995 anymore. This essential fact seems to have escaped Malachai, whose new album is an unabashed recreation of a sound last fashionable fifteen years ago: trip-hop. It's all here: the languid tempo, the careful use of sampled strings, the touches of psychedelia. They're even from Bristol, for heaven's sake. There's the occasional concession to modernity, and the odd touch of sixties pop, but on the whole nobody would have batted an eyelid if this had been released back in the days when even The Sneaker Pimps were putting out successful singles. Trouble is, nobody's going to bat an eyelid nowadays either, and for very different reasons: the genre is tired, outdated and deeply unfashionable. Return To The Ugly Side does little to change that. It's a competent but uninspired genre exercise, and nothing more.
If one were feeling especially unkind, one could label trip-hop as music made for people who would be stoners if only they could motivate themselves to walk to their dealer's house a little more often. Return To The Ugly Side does at least occasionally challenge that picture: tracks like the comparatively frantic psych-pop influenced 'Anne' quicken the pulse a little, and the record's drumming is both sporadically forceful and very high in the mix. It's not an entirely soporific album. But neither is it an especially exciting one; the duo have none of Massive Attack's soul or dark menace, and none of Portishead's songwriting nous. This is very much second-tier stuff, trip-hop-by-numbers. Strings swell inanely; a piano line plods; songs slowly spin around and around in aimless circles, chasing their own tails.
Return To The Ugly Side's best moments come when they embrace other influences; besides the aforementioned 'Anne', there's the raw, propulsive psychedelia of 'The Don't Just', which features the album's best vocal performance, and the surprisingly frenetic '(My) Ambulance'. These songs simply serve to emphasise the lack of inspiration elsewhere, however.
The duo claim to have been discovered by Portishead's Geoff Barrow; presumably Barrow, whose taste is normally both impeccable and eclectic, was weakened by a twinge of nostalgia. Nowadays, Barrow has pushed Portishead's sound into fruitful new pastures, and the genre's other A-listers, the likes of Tricky and Massive Attack, have also reinvented themselves. Malachai, in contrast, risk being stuck in a rut which somebody else dug more than a decade ago.