Shadowbox doesn’t have a consistent sound, really. Beats Antique get described as “ethnotronica” or “world” (both meaninglessly broad and reductive), but all that means is that they incorporate non-Western instrumentation or stylings into their music. On their tenth album in as many years, they take that idea and run wild with it – Russian folk singers, New Orleans jazz bands, and London-based dub, to name a few, all find their way into Shadowbox’s world. David Satori, one-third of Beats Antique, has said that a “love for culture” drives their sound, and that’s probably the closest to a succinct summary one could get. The result is a record that plays like a grab-bag of musical ideas, for both better and worse.
This world-tour approach can certainly yield excellent results, largely thanks to the group’s eagerness to dive into a wide pool of genres and sounds. The best tracks, though, not only immerse them fully in other sonic worlds but also give them room to stretch out and explore their ideas in full: both “Sideswipe” and “The Block” bring jazz influences to the forefront, with the former building its solos around a bed of antsy guitar and saxophone punches while the latter brings in the New York “brass house” band TOO MANY ZOOZ to pile their horns atop each other, creating a track whose energy is matched only by its musicianship. Elsewhere, “Burn Dub” finds some of the most-warranted bombast on the record, with booming brass lines giving way to a churning bridge of horn clouds and insistent drumming.
The trouble is that, half of the time, the record feels focused on “culture” as window-dressing rather than inspiration for something greater. Many of these songs simply don’t develop beyond their initial thirty seconds, and when they do it’s not compelling: “Killer Bee” has wonderful textures in the way its clarinets slide around, but uninspired “DJ scratches” foreshadow a rapped verse from an unmemorable emcee; “Let It All Go” relies solely on the energy its vocalists bring, forgetting to develop the song in compelling ways (nice horn lines a minute in, though); “Semblance” has a nicely hollowed-out string line that gets bulldozed by an uninteresting drop pulled right out of the future house playbook.
The confluence of these two halves – well-developed and hardly-explored – make Shadowbox a hard record to love. When it’s great, it’s wonderful – ever-evolving, engaging, and well-crafted. But too many tracks are content to structure themselves around a single idea without exploring it; at its worst, it can feel like a pastiche of the style they’re going for rather than a celebration or showcase thereof. It doesn’t really pick up until track six, where the band really seems to fall into a comfort zone of their own making rather than ricocheting between disparate moods and sounds. When it picks up, though, it’s hard to put down – excepting “Semblance,” the run of “Burn Dub” through “Silhouette” alone almost – almost – makes the record feel worthwhile.
This unequal nature can be easily explained away by Shadowbox’s mixtape-like aspirations – in an interview with Time Wheel, Satori said that with Shadowbox, they “recorded in Israel, Moscow, San Francisco, and New Orleans with different artists and took all these travels and experiences and put them together in a little box.” So, it’s self-consciously concept-free, genre-free, and style-free, with their sights instead aimed at compiling recordings from the road, nothing more and nothing less – which is fine. Records don’t have to have overarching themes or driving concepts or dramatic arcs to make them successful. What isn’t fine is when only half off it comes off as worthwhile, leaving the other half undercooked. Here’s Tommy Cappell, another third of the group, speaking with Bandcamp about Shadowbox:
“For me, it’s a place for a story to be told. You go into it knowing that you’re going to be told a story, and go on a journey.”
Sure, but is it one worth going on in the first place?
Recommended if you like: The Shanghai Restoration Project, Banco de Gaia, Caravan Palace
Favorite Tracks: 1, 6, 8, 9