Dutch Uncles provide their own helium for Big Balloon

Big BalloonThey may have a highly recognisable sound, full of grooves, mind-bending riffs, and surrealist concepts nicked straight from Kate Bush’s diary, but one thing you could never accuse Dutch Uncles of is predictability. The band’s musical output over the past nine years forms a vast, diverse clump of opportunistic art rock, forcibly plonked on public display with a solid stream of chin-stroking visitors. There’s a streak of creative genius about the band, taking on influences from Steve Reich to Grace Jones with a playful British twist.  Duncan Wallis is the kind of stick-thin, eccentric frontman nobody wants to be nowadays, adding further intrigue. And though he muses about love-making and hip-shaking in the context of an awkward nerd approaching his thirties, it still feels relatable on Big Balloon.

Early entries to the Dutch Uncles canon (the eponymous debut, Cadenza) had a heavy reliance on wild, chugging guitars, something that was all but thrown away on their third album Out of Touch In The Wild, where the band opted for Reichian xylophone rhythms. 2014's O Shudder almost made the band seem accessible for a second, led by slick '80s basslines and gliding, ambient synthesisers. There are equally abnormal delights to sample here, if not much sharper ones.

Big Balloon is yet another triumph of playful songwriting for Wallis and the band’s quiet composer/bassist Robin Richards, who’ve pumped an assortment of surreal sounds and ideas into a helium-filled installation. Richards' visit to Chernobyl inspired some of the albums strange inner workings: "Streetlight," for example, is a nod towards Richard’s experience of European techno in the underground clubs of Ukraine. The Wallis/Richards partnership is brought together in near-perfect synergy in some of Big Balloon’s more experimental tracks. You’d be hard stretched to find someone who can write about the relationship between fried chicken and Tinder, but Wallis manages to do just that between the shifting complexities of “Combo Box,” scrutinising the ephemeral nature of modern dating. “Oh Yeah” proceeds with a childish '80s synth line, like a Tears For Fears inspired nursery rhyme. “Same Plane Dream” is most reminiscent of the band’s debut material, swapping pop for curling math rock guitars that seem to repeat infinitely, recalling the Groundhog Day themes of its lyrics. There is still a ballad in the band’s back pocket, though, and “Achameleon” is it. Acting on the more slick, sophisticate-pop notes of indie peers Wild Beasts, the track cryptically tackles the philosophy of love.

As the band’s fifth album, Big Balloon probably isn’t the shocking change in sound that people were expecting. Yet there is still a frightening confidence in the way that Dutch Uncles are able to formulate non-pop genres into strong individual tracks without pushing people away. It’s an imperfect record in many ways, spliced together from various sources and inspirations - but then so is a lot of great art.

Release: 17th February 2017, Memphis Industries

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