No one would rightly argue that we are in the golden age of trip-hop still. The era of Maxinquaye and Blue Lines and Dummy is long gone, decades receded into history. The fabled Portishead reunion showed a shift away from trip-hop to an almost urban art rock ethos, like if Radiohead came up on the hoodies and dark alleys and scummy drug deals of decaying UK urban centers rather than posh schools and high education. Massive Attack released their last record in 2016, a brief EP following six years of silence, with no update since. DJ Shadow, God bless him, remains active, but his sonic palette has expanded so much as one of the few consistently active of the initial trip-hop vanguard that it feels improper to slot his current work into that mold just because he once made it, long ago.
Which makes Silent Opera such a stark and compelling record. If I played this for you, hand covering legal info on the record sleeve, and asked you when it was made, I’d guarantee most of you would say 1994, ’96 at the latest—in a good way. Much like how death metal has had a resurgence in the past five or ten years of new players playing the older school approach to the genre but knocking it so far out of the park songwriting and album-pacing and aesthetic-wise that it would feel rude not to slot them in with those greats of the past, on Silent Opera Long Arm manages to enact a perfect replica of how those classic records felt, coming across like a mutant hybrid of the dour art rock of Portishead and the weeping melancholic electronic lines of Massive Attack. But Long Arm is also aware you don’t make a record worthy of mention just by aping the classics well; there has to be something you bring to the table yourself, even if all the dressing and furniture is borrowed from somewhere else.
For Long Arm, that’s the persistent hybridization of both symphonic and jazz elements. It’s not uncommon on Silent Opera to have strings languishing in the background when, out of nowhere, a trumpet or an oboe appear. Xylophones are all over the record but playing the kind of crystalline and architectural playing one might associate more with Steve Reich or Philip Glass than trip-hop. The core of the record remains those chops-heavy jazz-funk drumbeats that were the backbone of so many great rap records and, from them, trip-hop, and there’s a huge handful of the kind of detuned and slightly out of time melodies that trip-hop and minimal/lo-fi hip-hop helped popularize years before it became a mandatory YouTube listen for studying and relaxation. (Where do you think that idea came from?) The combination of jazz and symphonic elements, all things present in earlier trip-hop but here lifted right up to the front, help give Silent Opera a symphonic atmosphere, not unlike the similar hybrids we saw employed by Jay-Z on those great mid-career records like The Black Album or American Gangster. Kudos as well to the concise runtime, a breezy 42 minutes in 8 tracks, keeping the whole experience tight and focused and easy to digest even when an aimless sprawl fits this kind of music; Long Arm seemed prescient that he has a potential breakthrough record on his hands and seemingly wanted this one to lead us all down the rabbit hole of his previous (and future) work, sacrificing a kind of totalizing ambition to make a powerful sniper shot of a record.
Silent Opera does the hard work of any musician making contemporary music in a style deeply figured into a historical moment must do. He balances both the necessary historical elements with his own symphonic, jazz and downtempo electronica concepts and comes away with a winning record. Something like this is partly so deeply refreshing because it reminds us of the depth and, more importantly, the breadth of great records being made. It’s February, so any proclamations about potential end-of-year worthiness would be exceptionally premature. But what’s important is that Long Arm’s rich but digestible cinematic, imagistic Silent Opera is a killer record.
Label: Project Mooncircle