Sharps & flats

Four years ago, Leftfield were contenders in the Fatboy Slim-Chemical Brothers-Prodigy poptronica pantheon. Now they're back, but where's the hype?

By Michelle Goldberg
September 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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A hyped-to-heaven electronic record brilliant enough to surpass even massively inflated expectations, Leftfield's debut album, "Leftism," was to 1995 what the Basement Jaxx's "Remedy" has been to 1999. It was a house epic that seemed to radically expand the genre's possibilities. Prefiguring the Chemical Brothers' bombastic rock-tinged hybrids and use of familiar indie vocalists, "Leftism" featured John Lydon's cockney sneer and the darkly ethereal croon of Curve's Toni Halliday. Infused with dub and hip-hop, it also anticipated the current big-beat explosion. Had they wanted to, Leftfield -- the duo of DJ Paul Daley and programmer Neil Barnes -- could have joined the poptronica pantheon along with acts like Fatboy Slim, Prodigy and Underworld.

Instead, they disappeared for four years. That means their forthcoming second release, "Rhythm and Stealth," is one of the most fervently awaited dance records ever. And while it's certainly not disappointing, it doesn't quite have the same revelatory charge as "Leftism," largely because in the intervening years other groups have caught up with what Leftfield was doing back then. Their reinvention of electro -- including a guest spot by godfather Afrika Bambaataa on "Afrika Shox" -- now sounds almost commonplace thanks to musicians like DeeJay Punk-Roc. The breakbeats and booming, surging bass that dominate "Dusted" have grown conventional through big-beat acts like the Freestylers, while the spooky, soulful atmospherics and doleful diva stylings on "Swords" recall oft-imitated Portishead and Massive Attack. "Rhythm and Stealth" surpasses most other current electronic offerings, but there's something depressing about all the familiarity, because it suggests that Leftfield, once innovators, have become followers.


Still, even if what Leftfield are doing isn't new, it's often thrilling. The deep, fuzzy, propulsive bass on "Phat Planet" is almost impossible not to move to, and the throbbing, metronomic build of the Detroit-techno-derived "Double Flash" and "6/8 War" summon the cathartic power of the early rave scene, when a squelching rhythm seemed to be jacked right into a dance floor's collective heart.

While body-popping anthem "Afrika Shox" is certainly pumped full of the same kind of early '80s references that dominated DeeJay Punk-Roc's 1998 "ChickenEye," Leftfield substitute an exuberant sincerity for the former's ironic smirk. The song soars with melodramatic retro-futuristic synths that are funk-filled and passionate without ever being kitschy, and Bambaataa's chant "Let's get electrified" gives it a power that verges on shamanistic. It's unlikely that "Rhythm and Stealth" is going to change the way anyone thinks about dance music the way that "Leftism" did. But what songs like "Phat Planet" and "Afrika Shox" lack in invention, they more than make up for in ecstatic electronic climaxes.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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