Now I can’t say I’ve kept up with The Cat Empire. Since buying and playing their debut album to death in year 11, the only occasion I’ve had to reconnect with this talisman of my teenage years has been when I’ve caught one of their high octane festival performances or when one of their upbeat singles comes on the radio. In any case, what little knowledge I had of the band seemed to indicate to me that they had kept up with their trademark upbeat and jazzy world fusion sound mixed with pop and hip hop vocals. You can understand then how surprised I was when upon first listening to their latest release, Cinema, I found a band with a decidedly more restrained and moody approach to their music, even if they do still draw from similar influences.
The latin and jazz vibe is still very strong. There’s still a slight hip hop touch to some of the vocals, but overall there is more of an emphasis on singing, with the vocalist doing a good job at making the transition between styles. It’s lost that irrepressible and rascally vibe that made them famous on their first album, replacing it with a more mature sound, reflecting the somewhat less cheery subject matter offered.
It’s not just the vocals that have been reeled in here; the instrumentation as well has undergone somewhat of a less bombastic transformation. Not to say that the playing on this album isn’t amazing. The band’s level of musicianship being as amazing as it is, even passages that seem much more subdued than anything you’d find on earlier albums are still not what you’d call boring. Not by a long shot. However, rather than throw their musicianship in your face, what the band have done is dressed it down, and the result is that everything seems less obvious and the music seems to hold a more mysterious and brooding quality to it.
Heart Is A Cannibal is a highlight. Channeling the spirit of Fela Kuti with a wicked afrobeat groove and intricate percussion, the song is the most upbeat on the album, yet it still holds an element of sadness or despair to it. Breaking out into flourishes of Latin horns, sounding as if they have been borrowed from Ennio Morricone himself, the song slows right down before exploding back into the opening groove, the band attacking it with a renewed fury, marking the climax of the album so far.
Closing track Beyond All however, seems to me to be the most ambitious track on the album. Incorporating a wide range of styles shown elsewhere on the album, it almost serves as a closing synopsis of the album; a summing up if you will of the musical themes and styles. Mixing afrobeat inspired organ this, a dark almost punk bassline and what sounds like scratching or some kind of analogue synth in the bottom of the mix with dramatic classically inspired piano, melancholic vocals, lush horns and amazing drumming, it works as a sampler, and makes for a resounding finish to the album.
While not what some old school fans might expect or like to hear, Cinema sees the Cat Empire at what might be a creative peak. Seemingly having found a degree of confidence and comfort after establishing such a strong and large fan base the band seem to have left their poppier and sillier side behind, instead choosing to explore a deeper side to the music that inspires them.