Pulling back from the experimental approach of 2014’s ambient-infused Whorl, which was recorded in front of a live audience using only two synthesizers and two sequencers, London electro-house duo Simian Mobile Disco returns to more familiar territory with Welcome to Sideways. A collection of wholly instrumental material produced in jam sessions after members James Ford and Jas Shaw returned from taking some time off to work on other projects, the album renews the pair’s focus on strictly club-based music, while eschewing the emphasis on featured guests and vocal loops found on earlier efforts. Shifting away from their initial outsized beats and moving further toward minimalism as they’ve gone along, Ford and Shaw have filed down their music’s abrasive edges to create a more downtempo album that levels out the peaks and valleys of the duo’s more raucous house flourishes.
Throughout this sleekly crafted album, Ford and Shaw take simple ideas and layer in additional textures to produce a measured club sound that’s more simmer than boil. Repetitive by design, the music doesn’t thrust itself center stage, but instead gradually works its way into one’s subconscious, sounding homogenous upon casual listen but, over time, unfurling its intricate, immersive layers. There are hints of the duo’s glitchier early sound, most notably on “Far Away from a Distance,” with its pounding techno beat, buzzing synths, and sharper-edged effects, but the bulk of Welcome to Sideways tilts toward sparser, more refined grooves that, while still branching out into their own unique spaces from track to track, share the same root structure.
These slight divergences from an otherwise narrow scope of sound yield both the strongest and weakest moments on the album. By dabbing on one gauzy texture after another on the tribal-house-inflected “Bubble Has No Answers,” Ford and Shaw subtly but steadily build the seven-minute track toward one of the few actual drops on the entire album, and an intensely satisfying one at that. Meanwhile, “Space Is Filled with Ringing” uses a Tubular Bells-esque beat and cosmic effects to create an eerie, retro-futurist vibe. Yet, an overreliance on effects can feel overwhelming, as it does on “Staring at All This Handle,” with an incessant oscillating groan underpinning the track with what sounds like old windshield wipers. But these weaker moments are the exception, and they do little to detract from the overall impact of Welcome to Sideways.
At times, Simian Mobile Disco’s drawn-out electronic jams seem more attuned to ingredients of a remix rather than a standalone track. Though the lack of a vocal element furthers an effective minimalist aesthetic, a small dose of the human voice could help better ground the music. Nevertheless, the album largely succeeds because of its workmanlike producers’ willingness to streamline their sound, making Welcome to Sideways a contoured album that hits a sweet spot between kinetic and laidback.