In 1979, when Steve Dahl and 50,000 rock fans crowded Chicago’s Comiskey Park, they served as a catalyst for the end of a movement. Disco had eclipsed rock music as the mainstream cultural force, and in its wake pushed the country towards a modern lifestyle that embraced racial and sexual tolerance. After Disco Demolition Night the hitmakers kept making hits but the wave had officially crested. What those angry fans at White Sox stadium didn’t know was that disco may have been a passing fad but the chart dominance of dance music was only beginning.
A lot has happened since then. Pop stars changed the way dance music was made and marketed. New wave came and went. And eventually EDM began to take on a similar role in the mainstream music as disco had. In the late aughts, as festival culture began to take on the scorn of music journalists and city permit offices, DJs like Calvin Harris and Avicii became overnight headliners. Their ascent was so rapid, insiders began to fear another bubble burst and before the next decade was over, the scene had shifted back to the niche. At this point, the world could not seem farther away from the crowded, hedonistic ethos of EDM, but just like the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, ODESZA pushes on.
ODESZA are a duo, Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight, and together with Golden Features (Tom Stell), they make up a new trio, BRONSON. The outing seems a savvy and necessary move for a band like ODESZA, a group of talented musicians pushing their sound with the help of a younger, more exuberant partner. Where Mills and Knight have risen to be some of the biggest stars of EDM, garnering multiple Grammy nominations over the last few years, Stell is still a relative newcomer and surprisingly it’s his presence that gives the album its most defining moments.
While ODESZA have made a career out of being reliable festival fair, Golden Features injects his modern EDM with touches of deep house, and more emotive characterisations, balancing out the flair and sunny production from Mills and Knight. This gives BRONSON, their self-titled debut, a melancholic mood – one that suits the band nicely. Instead of escapist reverie, the group pushes for tangible realism, at least most of the time.
As is often the case with collaborations like these, BRONSON struggles with its focus, never knowing how far to push itself. While many tracks allow Stell to filter the polished sheen into something more obtrusive, too often are would-be club tracks just restrained, not built to be compelling in different ways, just the same sonic switches on a smaller scale. Tracks like “BLINE” and “KEEP MOVING” don’t just feel out of place, but feel antiquated amongst songs where the group is actually developing their sound.
“HEART ATTACK” and “KNOW ME” stand out as bittersweet love songs, delivered with the same gusto as any of ODESZA’s hits. Featuring vocal contributions from lau.ra and Gallant, these tracks are catchy earworms which still manage to capture the same emotion as the downtrodden instrumentals. “KNOW ME” in particular, flows immediately into “VAULTS”, a track that heightens the tension and anxiety only hinted at by the first track. The disparity works, but with so many differing ideas floating around, the album loses its pace quickly.
On most of BRONSON, ideas are teased out, taking their time but remaining straightforward. “TENSE” and “CONTACT” however, feel at odds with the languid exploration. Both songs hit the listener over the head, providing an over the top and boisterous dance song that feels alien to the rest of this album. More than that though, they feel like steps back, not as cooperative as the other tracks and not as prescient either.
Contrarily, the best moment on BRONSON, as one might expect, is the most successful combination of these artists’ differing styles. “CALL OUT” is as memorable as any song here, but it savours its most direct moments and emphasises Stell’s subdued energy to mellow its more theatrical elements. It succeeds in being both a dance song and something tamer, embodying the entire purpose of the BRONSON collaboration.
Unfortunately, there are too few times when the album works as well as it does on “CALL OUT”, too few times when the collaboration seems well suited to all three members. Golden Features may have a long career ahead of him, but for ODESZA to continue to grow as a group, it will need to change its style the way it demonstrated it could on the stronger tracks here. As with many talented musicians attached to EDM at the height of its success, ODESZA still have the ability to develop the sound that made them famous. This collaboration, even if not sufficient, is at the very least a step in the right direction for two artists at very different points in their careers.