- For all the hubbub around his work, Ross Birchard's brilliance tends to come in intermittent flashes: the highlights of his spotty debut album, Butter, or the brief but powerful Satin Panthers. His big break really came with TNGHT, a collaborative project with Lunice that gave trap one of its definitive anthems ("Higher Ground") but pushed Birchard into an EDM corner he didn't like. Unsurprisingly, there are few EDM-friendly moments on Lantern. Instead, the album he's been promising for five years seems intent on pushing the boundaries of what his name is associated with, from aural pyrotechnics to soaring R&B anthems. Even for an artist whose work has sometimes been described as "maximalist," Lantern is about as big as it gets.
With the increase in scale, Birchard's music has steadily become more orchestral, as exemplified by "Scud Books," a sought-after dubplate that makes a welcome appearance here. Time hasn't diminished its impact: this is one of Birchard's signature tunes, heavy and futuristic thanks to its distinctly synthetic textures (another hallmark of latter-day HudMo). It even gets its own intro, "Kettles," which sounds like the theme from some golden age Hollywood film. This introduces the epicness of Lantern—it's the kind of statement record that has a creative director, one on which the horns blare ten times as loud and the ballads get extra weepy.
This theatrical flair is nearly the album's downfall. Birchard holds up his end of the deal, but the vocalists can't always reach his level. "Very First Breath" is a love song infused with blinding synth lines borrowed from the happy hardcore Birchard frequently talks up (and sometimes plays), but Irfane's whiny screech is straight-up annoying. Jhene Aiko's performance on "Resistance"—which compares a romantic relationship to tyranny and murder—just isn't convincing. The same goes for the gospelly cringefest "Warriors," which brings Lantern's momentum down too early. Only Miguel truly locks in with Birchard, soaring powerfully on "Deepspace," where his vocals sound as resplendent as the sparkling production around them.
And the production does sparkle. The instrumentals here are undoubtedly Birchard's best. Aside from "Scud Books," you've got "System," which nosedives from fluttery heights into rumbling trap, along with the shimmering, almost delicate electronics of "Shadows" and "Portrait Of Luci," which showcase the soft sensibility that lurks beneath all that overdriven percussion. It's hard not to fist-pump when Birchard's blown-out drums come in, as they do on the album's closer, "Brand New World."
When Lantern hits its high points, it ends up somewhere in the stratosphere. When it falters, it's mostly because it's too ambitious, either thematically, as with the overblown love songs, or technically, as with the roller-coaster sequencing that halts the momentum over and over. (There's even an odd collaboration with Antony Hegarty, if the whiplash weren't already hard enough.) At just 47 minutes, Lantern is packed to the gills with ideas—the creative overflow of an artist who's been forced to live with major label lag. But it's that throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach that keeps Lantern from cohering into the career-defining masterpiece that Birchard has in him somewhere.
02. Very First Breath feat. Irfane
04. Warriors feat. Ruckazoid & Devaeux
06. Scud Books
07. Indian Steps feat. Antony
08. Lil Djembe
09. Deepspace feat. Miguel
11. Resistance feat. Jhené Aiko
12. Portrait Of Luci
14. Brand New World