Guy and Howard Lawrence set an unusual precedent for electronic dance music with their debut in 2013. At the time, Guy was 21 and Howard was just turning 18. Despite their age, the two of them managed to rearrange the EDM soundscape into something that was starkly different, expertly crafted, and a far cry from the immediate gratification of ‘drops’ and ‘wobbles’ so employed by their peers in the mainstream. A clear homage to 2-step, dubstep, garage, hard house, and other various styles of dance that comprise UK club culture; Settle played out something like a poppy, weirdly all inclusive, Burial record for the masses. Immediately accessible and uncompromisingly distinct, everyone from run of the mill club rats to armchair music snobs could get into it. The sound was infectious, managing to permeate a little bit of itself into every EDM producer’s arsenal. Two years on, following the success of an almost year long stretch of touring behind Settle, the dynamic duo return to bring us their long awaited followup: Caracal.
Trying to shed the weight of their previous record, which they believe to be pigeonholed by, Caracal sees the brothers slow down the tempo and approach a newfound slickly electronic melded R&B territory. The beats are smoother, there’s a certain sheen to the synthesizers, and the record teems with an obvious urge to refine what they’ve become so well known for. That in itself is the biggest pitfall of the record: with such a culling of what made them appealing in the first place, they’ve managed to lose what made them exciting. Being much more sonically subdued leads to a number of tracks sounding like, no pun intended, white noise.
With a much bigger reach than they had in 2013, the new roster of vocalists features a much more star studded cast. Big names like Miguel, Lorde, The Weeknd, and now, due to the trajectory of their own career, Sam Smith, all make an appearance to lend their voices to the new host of songs. LION BABE, Kwabs, Jordan Rakei, and Nao, serve to round out the mix. There are only two tracks that don’t feature guests, and they happen to be some of the most urgent and compelling songs on the record. Jaded is a much more apt throwback to Latch than the album’s own Sam Smith feature, and Echoes evokes the nostalgia of its predecessors 2-step influence. Interesting instrumentals on a number of pieces such as Nocturnal, Magnets, and Hourglass, keep the record somewhat absorbing. The muddied R&B influence works particularly well with the slowed down BPM on the album’s closer Masterpiece and the Miguel guest spot Good Intentions.
It’s well produced, sonically stimulating, and the album as a whole in itself isn’t bad. So what’s missing? Comparing it so heavily to its predecessor might seem like an unfair measure, but the reasoning behind it is sound. Settle was alive with the excitement and vibrance of two kids that wanted to drastically alter, and in turn, refine, what it meant to make a good dance record. They may have indiscernibly got more than they bargained for, resulting in one of the best contemporary pieces of EDM work of all time. On Caracal, their need to seemingly purify their process results in the music being stripped of what made it so intoxicating in the first place. It’s not particularly bad, it’s just a little bland. By attempting to cast off the excess of their most obvious influences, they’ve managed to create an overbearing weight of monotony.