In 2006, Booka Shade released the impossibly good Movements, in which they straddled the lines of hook-heavy house and the “thinking man” attention to deal of techno, managing to equally satisfy dancers and listeners at home. Booka Shade didn’t break new ground or shape the future landscape of dance music; they simply created a batch of songs whose tricks didn’t stale. Looking back, they still thrill and surprise just as much as they ever did.
For a duo with a reputation as the brains behind the tracks that Get Physical DJs M.A.N.D.Y. and DJ T built their fame on, Booka Shade take expert songcraft and blend it with dynamic beats, resulting in pulsing, pounding music that moves bodies and arrangements that hooking minds, twisting and turning at every corner. For The Sun & The Neon Light, Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier expand their musical palette, this time incorporating tracks built around proper vocals (courtesy of Merziger) and more traditional song structure. With the broader audience Booka Shade reached courtesy of Movements, it seems they now look to increase the accessibility even further with The Sun & The Neon Light.
The Sun & The Neon Light finds Booka Shade exploring new thematic territory, which ultimately dictated the direction of the album. Whereas Movements really felt like an ideal collection of singles, this album has a deliberate purpose. Focusing on the dichotomy of night and day, the album splits between winsome explorations of light and reflection, represented as the “day,” and more upbeat, driving moments, representing “night.”
“Charlotte,” the highlight of the “night” portion, is defined by a vocodered repeat of “I never said I was true” alongside bright, shiny synths and a throbbing club friendly 4/4 backbone. Stylistically, the track would have fit in Movements aesthetic yet still feels a necessary inclusion here, if only to show that the group still understands what it takes to move a dance floor.
“Solo City” and “Sweet Lies” exist on the opposite end of the spectrum. Both are ultra reflective, somewhat somber affairs, clearly designed as mood pieces. The tracks are frighteningly good, considering that playing them next to any of the older material one would have no inclination that these are the works of the same group.
Still, in the context of the album, the moments of success are rather spotty. Most of material in between toils either as ambient atmospherics that never progress toward satisfying resolution or as all-too-simplistic club anthems lacking subtleties that create any kind of distinct identity.
But this distinct breakdown between night and day itself is essentially the failure of the album: Booka Shade are neither DJs nor proper electronic/ambient artists oblivious to the dance-music world. Yet in the context of The Sun & The Neon Light, these are the only hats they want to wear. It seems in making the artistic statement that the album reaches for resulted in Booka Shade abandoning the persona that Movements identified.
I’m all for growth and exploration, but I can’t shake the feeling that the reason Movements is such a great record is because it is Booka Shade. The Sun & The Neon Light is Booka Shade trying to be something more sophisticated and accessible. Unfortunately, although some of the songs are good, the album feels ill fitting.
Merziger and Kammermeier are terrific songsmiths with a love for dance music so strong that it can’t help but define their compositions. But on The Sun & The Neon Light, they abandon what they are, instead becoming too attached to the underlying concept of the album. It seems they have forgotten that no matter how appealing this concept is to them, nothing is more appealing for the listener than experiencing the artists as they really are, not as they want to be.