Ever since our post about the “amen break,” I’ve been looking at ’90s-era drum n’ bass music differently. The sample really was used in just about everything, but as DJs and beatmakers continued looking for new ways to make their sound even more diverse, by the late ’90s there was a surge of bands that wanted to slow things down a bit, injecting emotion and heartfelt lyrics into music that was normally served to raucous club kids. Madonna once stupidly called the genre “emotional electronica” when promoting Ray of Light. But unbeknownst to her, there were dozens of bands who had already beaten her to the punch, one of them being a little electronic duo from Manchester–Lamb.
Unlike other prolific bands that came out of that era, you won’t hear young artists proclaiming Lamb as a source of inspiration, nor will you see long opinion pieces in Pitchfork about how they changed the face of music. Unlike the Portisheads or Massive Attacks of the world, Lamb banked most of its success on being safe. As The Independent once cynically wrote, “Lamb used to feel like the most infuriatingly middle-class band in existence: a Portishead for people who were scared of the dark, a proto-Dido to provide ambience at dinner parties.” Ouch.
True, Lamb is conveniently left out when people talk about ’90s electronica, but their forgetfulness is not a weakness. If anything, their penchant for creating beautiful songs and then shrinking back into the shadows is an intriguing talent. People might not remember the band, but they always remember the music.
When news dropped that Lamb was releasing their sixth album this year, Backspace Unwind, I was shocked. I hadn’t been aware of them in over a decade. The duo took a five-year hiatus after the release of 2003′s Between Darkness and Wonder to work on separate solo projects, one of which was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. But as far I knew the band was kaput, just like many of the late ’90s bands before them. So when I heard about the release of Backspace Unwind, my reaction was something along the lines of, “Lamb?? Oh shit, I remember them!” High on nostalgia, I decided to take a dip in their catalog, revisiting all their past albums and singles.
Lamb first burst onto the scene with their 1996 self-titled debut album Lamb. The band had an interesting sound, a result of both band members’ conflicting aesthetics. Lou Rhodes, the singer, was obsessed with lyrics and emotion, and Andy Barlow was obsessed with glitched out beatmaking. Their debut was like an arena for these two dueling sounds–Barlow’s typical drum n’ bass mixed with Rhode’s emotive vocals. Their most successful single came from this album, the epic “Gorecki.” The song was even sung by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.
Although Lamb’s debut was their defining record (my personal favorite track from that album is “Cotton Wool“), they continued pushing the envelope with Fear of Fours, an album that, much like its title, was a testament against typical 4/4 beats and consisted of complex rhythmic patterns. However, there weren’t that many standout tracks on that album, aside from the shockingly jazzy “B-Line” and the gentle “Lullaby.” (Interesting fact: I first discovered them when coming across the video for “B-Line” while watching 120 Minutes. In the video, Rhodes sings while being hooked up to two jumper cables. When the music kicks in, Rhodes is electrocuted into a crazy 3D character. Tragically, the video is nowhere to be found online.)
Their next album, 2001′s What Sound, is when things started to change. Gone were the heavy drum n’ bass beats and the constant tug of war between vocals and heavy electronics. Instead, the duo took a quieter, more laid back sound that would later become their staple for future albums. In fact, it was probably this album and the one after it, 2003′s Between Darkness and Wonder, that cemented their place as “infuriatingly middle-class.” Both albums were softer, more accessible, and could quietly exist in the background of commercials and TV shows without being too obtrusive. However, some of their better known tracks came from this period, “Gabriel” and “Heaven,” the latter of which was used in the HBO TV show Six Feet Under.
But Lamb’s penchant for making safe “pretty” music isn’t a bad thing. Plenty of similar sounding bands–Hooverphonic, Halou– couldn’t handle longevity the way Lamb did. A lot of these bands floundered during the early ’00s, while others disappeared all together. However, Lamb has stayed consistent, and their 2014 album proves that they’re not stuck in the past. The gentle prettiness of past albums takes a backseat in favor for more gritty tracks with pounding bass. Weirdly enough, this is an album you can actually bop your head to. The raw emotion is still there, but dressed up in a different outfit, one that stands out and demands to be recognized instead of coasting in the background. It’s definitely their danciest album in years. Younger music listeners who might not remember Lamb but listen to people like Hundred Waters and Blue Hawaii will definitely enjoy this.
It’s been 18 years since Lamb’s first debut, and their career proves that it’s not just the heavy hitters that deserve relevance. As musical genres shift and change, Lamb has realized raw emotion is a sound that never grows old.