Just what is in Bristol’s water supply? Or is it simply a combination of estuary location, compact size and integrated population? But just as there is a dialect called Bristolian, there is an identifiably Bristolian sound – restlessly rhythmic, marvellously moody, acutely melodic, something urban and yet oceanic, full of hidden depths and currents.
"I don’t know what’s in the water here,” wonders one half of Malachai, the singularly named Scott, “but for me it’s down to B Boy principles, and attempting to be one step ahead of everyone else. People here pride themselves on their knowledge; they know a good thing when they hear it.”
Malachai’s 2009 album debut 'The Ugly Side Of Love' was an extraordinary record, one of the best to emerge from Bristol’s excessively creative scene. “The rarest of things; both highly individual and highly interesting, with razor-sharp lyrics and excellent tunes” (Clash). “Oppressive, indulgent, often beautiful and wildly disorientating” (The Word). But as MOJO added, it was “a stand-alone Bristol sensation.” The album had hallmarks of an archetypal Bristolian bent but it wasn’t simply trip-hop but something spikier and tougher, rooted in myriad fabulous forms of the ‘60s psychedelic underground, from folk to funk, from Tropicalismo to Turner holed up in his Ladbroke Grove lair in Performance.
Also, in the stealthy, sandpapery voice and hugely charismatic presence of singularly named singer Gee, Malachai has a unique frontman.
Totally coincidentally, says Scott, the new record 'Return To The Ugly Side', like its predecessor, totals 14 incisive tracks and 35 concise minutes. There are changes, however. It’s more influenced by their individual hip-hop roots than the first album. They’re now called Malachai and not Malakai (they changed it after the US rapper of that name objected). And more importantly, “it’s a more developed, rounded sound for us without it going hi-fi,” Scott reckons. “The first album is like a poppy, eager Labrador, like ‘here’s a big tune! And here’s another!’ we were also a bit ‘let’s have a go at that!’ like we were four different bands. The Labrador has been around the block a few times now. It feels truer to us.”
Talking influences, Gee mentions ‘60s pop-psych bands The 23rd Turnoff. The Cavemen and The Savages; Scott adds, Portishead’s third and DJ Shadow’s first, with a more chopped up feel in tandem with recent Gonjasufi and Flying Lotus albums. In the orchestrated intro ‘Monsters’, Ben Salisbury’s arrangement aims for what Scott calls, “the space and strangeness” of Jon Brion’s score for Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind that infiltrates other nooks and crannies of the album. It may sound more like one band now but Return To… has many moods. ‘Anne’ throws a Lennonesque (circa ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’) curve but The Beatles never sounded like this. Mid-Antarctica (‘Wearing Sandals’), has a metallic crunch but a contradictory dreamy core. ‘Rainbows’ – which samples Welsh rockers Mann’s 1969 instrumental ‘Parchment & Candles’ – distils that sweetness and adds a female vocal in the form of Sheffield’s Katy Wainwright to underline a more beautiful side to love.
Because as both album titles confirm, the ugly side usually wins out. “I’ve been so hung up on love, I was in a strange, bad head space,” explains Gee, who was going through a bad break-up at the time of the first album. “But the words were much more than boy-girl. I grew up with that post-war ‘I love you’ mentality, and there are so many love songs out there that don’t touch on how wide and complex love really is. As you get older, you see how the world works and you get more confused and hurt by how it’s run.”
By the time he was writing Return To… says Gee, “I was coming to terms with it and letting go.” Despite its solemn mood, this is clearest on ‘Let ‘Em Fall’:“If you've been hid behind bars / heavy chains over your shoulders / let 'em fall let 'em fall let 'em fall.” It’s the first single from the album, given its sleek and contagious chorus.
Not that Gee is out of the woods yet. In the jittery ‘My Ambulance’ (co- written with Geoff Barrow’s Beak> bandmate Billy Fuller), he confesses, “I'm feelin' lost, so lost / I do need you, my ambulance”) with echoes of The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow opus in the vocal and beyond. The pensive, eerie ‘Distance’ epitomises loneliness (“Sonars and radars they bring no news / even though they know there's no use”). Similarly sparse and subterranean, ‘Monster’ chokes, “I don’t want to be the monster/ the one you run from / I should be the one you run to/ it should be me who is loving you.”
Yet after ’Snake Eyes’, the second instrumental interlude, the closing ‘Hybernation’ – at 3.41 mins the longest and most skeletal track - Gee is emerging. The circulating, descending guitar line suggests that life goes on: “I've been here enough / here in a low position / there's only up / I'm comin' up / tunneling up / who knows what I'll find out when I meet the sun?”
“’Hybernation’ is about self-imposed isolation. I like to keep to myself, but it’s damaging,” Gee acknowledges. “We all hide behind our screens, computer or otherwise, increasingly so as time goes on. It’s like we’re having conversations with machines and forgetting to be human. We’re denying ourselves the truth.
“If we’re hung up on anything,” he concludes, “it’s honesty. That’s the beauty of Malachai for me.”
Malachai, then, in its fervent duality – Scott/Gee, tunes/beats, past/present, dread/hope, ugly/beautiful – have made another west country classic. Ah, Bristol’s water supply; so much to answer for…