The Album that Changed My Life: Bonobo – Black Sands

My heart always sinks when someone asks that classic ice-breaker question “So, what’s your favourite kind of music?” or “Who’s your favourite artist?”. There is just too much music in the world, and too many artists to choose between, for me to ever possibly decide on one single answer. I normally try to skirt around the question by saying something like “Well, it really depends what mood I’m in…” and then reeling off a long list of artists and genres I’m into, which generally seems to suffice as an answer for most people and the conversation continues. However, when pressed to choose a single answer I find that my mind goes blanks and I am left floundering in a blind panic about what to choose. Musical taste can speak volumes about your personality, meaning it is a hugely important and near impossible decision to make. Therefore, when asked to write about the album that changed my life I was immediately filled with similar feelings of dismay. But, after approximately 10 minutes of wracking my brains and staring hopelessly into space, it came to me: Black Sands by Bonobo.

This album is undoubtedly my go-to album on my iPod. I first heard it at age 17 in the backseat of a friend’s car as the four of us hurtled around the back lanes of the Peak District, thrilled that one of us had managed to pass our driving test and feeling optimistic about this new-found freedom. We parked up in a lay-by with a view and watched the sunset slowly melt into darkness, Bonobo’s poignant melodies weaving their way across the moorlands.

I discovered Black Sands at a time in my life when important decisions were looming: what to study at university. It is fair to say that that music was a strong contender for my degree choice: my early years had been accompanied with a lot of blues, folk, rock and world music, and I had been begrudgingly but dutifully learning the clarinet and the piano (slightly less begrudgingly) from a young age. However I was feeling somewhat lost or ‘displaced’ within music. I was classically trained, but in the true spirit of rebellious teenagerness, I had little to no interest in pursuing classical music any further. I was also getting increasingly drawn into the electronic music scene, intrigued by this different, darker scene that was yet to be discovered. I felt that there was a huge void between the music that interested me (electronic music), and what is often described as ‘real’ or ‘proper’ music by older generations (traditional instrumental/ vocal music).

The album is a slow-burner which generally maintains a darkish, pensive, downbeat vibe, building and gathering energy both within each individual track and throughout the album, like a storm that’s gradually brewing. Deep, rolling, heavy sub-bass alternates with chopped-up beats and brighter, more erratic and percussive sounds – an unstoppable natural force.

Black Sands bridged this gap for me, opening my eyes to the flexible nature of music. The album encompasses an eclectic selection of sounds that span across multiple genre boundaries including dance, electronic, jazz, folk and world music. The opening track, ‘Prelude’, sets a mysterious, mellow yet anticipative tone with oriental-sounding strings in thirds, underpinned by simple octaves and broken chords in the piano. It segues seamlessly into the second track ‘Kiara’ which develops the same instrumental motifs and then rapidly transforms into an electronic track as a bass drum muscles its way in to occupy the low-end space.

Nine out of the twelve tracks are entirely instrumental and feature live instrumentation, much of which is played by Simon Green (Bonobo) himself. Drawing on his previous more sample-based work, Green arranges the instrumentation to create multi-layered atmospheres, masterfully blending the calming timbres of the clarinet, bass clarinet and classical guitar and contrasting them against blipping, electronic keyboard patterns. The soulful, lilting vocals of Andreya Triana add another layer of intrigue to three tracks: ‘Eyesdown’, ‘The Keeper’ and ‘Stay The Same’.
The album is a slow burner which generally maintains a darkish, pensive, downbeat vibe, building and gathering energy both within each individual track and throughout the album, like a storm that’s gradually brewing. Deep, rolling, heavy sub-bass alternates with chopped up beats and brighter, more erratic and percussive sounds – an unstoppable natural force, alluded to in the moody image of Derwent Water on the album cover.

Witnessing Green pull this expansive electro-orchestral masterpiece together live on stage was an even more impressive feat. This stunning blend of classical and jazz instrumentation with electronic beats and loops was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Black Sands prompted my ‘lightbulb’ moment and made me feel like I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. No matter how many times I listen to the album, it never fails to fill me with a sense of momentum and to confirm that music was the right choice for me.


Maddy Blatherwick-Plumb




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