4HERO WASN'T THE first crew to figure out that U.K. dance culture's two biggest themes--tripped-out hedonism and apocalyptic brooding--don't jibe. But their breakthrough single, "Kirk's Nightmare," proved how dumb Ecstasy-addled clubbers can be. Selling unabashed anti-drug ideology (and pulling it off without the prudish posturing of Moby or Josh Wink), "Kirk's Nightmare" stands up as perhaps the only buzz-killer that doubles as an anthem, enacting every clubber's worst nightmare (overdose) before their ears. With its deadpan "Mr. Kirk, your son is dead" sample (often misinterpreted as a Star Trek reference), and its stun-gun synths, 4Hero laid the groundwork for the staccato sounds of techstep, only to reject the regressive beats of some of those that followed in their wake.
With Two Pages, 4Hero seemingly aims to avoid the bleak, ominous sounds they helped create. The first half of Two Pages works at synthesizing an opposite to techstep by grafting subdued jungle breakbeats to lavish string arrangements inspired by '70s soul and funk. Drawing on the sweet, symphonic arrangements of Roy Ayers and Charles Stepney, tracks like "Planetaria," "Third Stream," and "Spirits in Transit" use strings, harp, and Wurlitzer to create some of the most restrained, elegant drum 'n' bass ever recorded.
But Two Pages' dominant ambition--to meld the suave optimism of Let's Get It On-era Marvin Gaye with Detroit techno's emancipating futurism--bogs down in its weak pop gestures and New Age yammering. On "Loveless," 4Hero unsex the usually mesmerizing Philadelphia poet Ursula Rucker. Unlike her succulent panting on "The Unlocking," which closes the Roots' 1994 breakthrough, Do You Want More?!!!??!, Rucker's indignant story of a betrayed Mother Earth sounds pedantic and overwrought. ("Apocalyptic truths of revelations hasten our Omega," Rucker huffs.)
"Star Chasers" offers Two Pages' best stab at pop, but flounders with wretched lyrics that urge the listener to "answer your feelings" and "look deep inside" in order to "escape the circle of life." Meanwhile, the album's second disc comes off like a B-sides retrospective, an unimaginative reversion to the dark sounds of their undeniably superior Parallel Universe LP. The extraterrestrial bass burps on "We Who Are Not as Others," the tinny chirps of "Humans," and the Casio clinks of "Pegasus 51" all sound drab and unintentionally comic. Or just plain foolish. The soulless "Humans" sees the group's techno-utopian hogwash slosh back in its face. Here a droid that sounds like a cross between Darth Vader and C-3PO babbles about a discovery that "reveals by mathematical law/There should be 10,000 civilizations with our level of technology or above in this galaxy alone." When 4 Hero abandons the warm textures, soothing tides of rhythm, and boisterous double bass lines that nearly elevate the album above its shallow mysticism, they crash into the same stylistic crater they aimed to blast us out of.
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