Emphasizing the “lo” in “glo-fi,” Small Black’s eponymous debut EP arrived as a charmingly fuzzy selection of synth-pop. Dreamy, yet humble, it offered a view of the Brooklyn group’s promise, a kind of stellar debut album in chrysalis. Far from perfect, its homespun production nonetheless couldn’t obscure the band’s melodies, which were frequently mesmerizing, and almost always catchy. So it doesn’t come as a particularly big surprise that after a shower, a shave and a boost from high profile label Jagjaguwar, Small Black have graduated from promising up-and-comers to a dazzling force of new wave energy on their much-anticipated full-length, New Chain.
Clocking in at just shy of 35 minutes, New Chain is a relatively succint, yet densely packed and fully realized collection of music that pushes the aesthetic of Small Black’s first EP up to a new and more confident level. Still adhering closely to the warm and thick synthesizer sounds that marked early tracks like “Despicable Dogs” as clear winners, the ten selections on New Chain open up a bit more, allowing for more easy and hallucinatory pleasures. Maintaining a brisk momentum without ever seeming rushed, the album serves to invite and caress the listener, rather than provoke.
The woozy dream-pop of “Camouflage” is a blissful entrance to the album, reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins’ best singles, filtered through heavy effects. As such, it’s a powerful juxtaposition of dense and propulsive synth-pop with hypnotic psychedelia, culminating in a sound that’s as magical as it is danceable. By comparison, “Search Party” is a more straightforward new waver, sputtering and zooming with laser beam keyboards and a hedonistic attitude that’s impossible to deny. “Hydra,” meanwhile, booms with big, cavernous drums and hazy melodies that bleed into sweetly disorienting shoegazer textures. And first single “Photojournalist” stands out as a glorious and towering pop gem, making more of woozy keyboard patches than MGMT ever could.
The album’s second half drops in tempo a bit, diverting slightly away from Small Black’s more upbeat jams in favor of more elegant sheets of dream pop gloss. “Goons” may kick off the flipside with some distorted throb, but from there, Small Black enters into chill-out mode with the restrained “Light Curse,” the softly catchy title track and Prince-inspired sex jam “Panthers.” Yet while the pace drops, the power behind these tracks certainly doesn’t, revealing the band as equally adept at prettier, sleeker melodies as they are with momentum-building dance pop treats.
With a little polish and a broader platform on which to display their syrup-thick synth-pop approach, Small Black have quickly ascended beyond the hype afforded most of their chillwave peers. New Chain transcends genre artifact, the sum of its 35 minutes adding up to a pop album that delivers both soft-focus daydreams and heady dance-pop bangers, sometimes simultaneously.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.