IAMX, the electro-rock unit founded by Sneaker Pimps frontman Chris Corner, have grabbed our attention for many years, thanks to a dark and sensual sound which is equal parts chilling, romantic and aggressive; it's fitting that “Nightlife,” one of the band's most popular singles, plays a major role in the German vampire epic We Are the Night (a film I highly recommend, by the way). It's been two years to the day since Chris unleashed the angst-ridden Volatile Times on the world, and our fast has been broken with their ambitious fifth studio album The Unified Field.
The album's title comes from the scientific theory of a universal consciousness linking everything in the universe... and yeah, that's a pretty challenging concept for an artist in any medium. But Chris is a unique talent, whose creative intensity is equal to the task. “I fight with science and spirituality constantly,” Corner explains. “This album is my attempt to accept human nature for what it is and to learn to love it and revel in the eternal frustrations and contradictions it brings.” Apparently quite a few people were eager to share in that challenge... the album's fundraising campaign (via Pledge Music) hit its goal in a matter of minutes. That's not a misprint. Minutes. Consider my mind blown.
The literally cosmic scope of themes Chris tackles in this record led him across the globe to collaborate with other artists – something which the often solitary Corner was reluctant to do. “I must say it was traumatic to hand over control,” he admits. “But I swore to myself I won't make an album alone again. It smashes me to pieces emotionally and has just become more and more trouble than fun.” Contributors to The Unified Field include producer Jim Abbiss (Adele, Arctic Monkeys), who brought a wider range of instrumentation to the table, including classical instruments like vibraphone, glockenspiel, celesta and harpsichord; and Chris' fellow Sneaker Pimps alumnus Liam Howe, who contributed his own distinctive synth programming.
The globe-spanning, time-traveling approach to this album is immediately apparent in the opening track “I Come With Knives,” with its mix of German and English lyrics (Corner himself is based in Berlin) and the use of glockenspiel adds a spidery gothic counterpoint to the dark futuristic beats. The down-tempo dirge “Sorrow” is infused with deep howling woodwind sounds and a cavernous echo that lends a lost, drifting sensation to the vocals. The '80s-style analog synths, bass guitar and piano of the title track give it a warm, inviting texture that is the perfect model of Chris's organic musical hybrid, but the eerie bass line and falsetto ghost vocals of “The Adrenalin Room” serve to remind you that he's also ready to take you to some seriously creepy places. The smooth ballad “Quiet the Mind” brings earthier colors to the palette, in the form of a clean lead guitar and only the lightest percussion touches, and that gentler approach continues with acoustic guitar, vibraphone and snare drum in “Under Atomic Skies.” The vocals here seem mellow and light on the surface, but are deceptively intense, punctuated by beefy bass stabs.
Chris' vocals are most effective in “Screams,” blending nursery rhyme images into a dark tale of sex, drugs and nightmares, and are wisely given most of the weight in the mix, blending smoothly with a pleading guitar lead. A warm vintage guitar, harpsichord and cello weave a cozy sonic blanket for “Come Home,” with clean vocals laying gently in the middle. “Animal Impulses” employs a dark carnival framework – complete with brass, xylophone and a creepy calliope – that perfectly fits Corner's fairytale lyrical style. In a departure from the gothic overtones that dominate the album, “Walk With the Noise” has a more urban feel, but it contains the same sense of urgency. Not the same can be said of “Land of Broken Promises,” an ode to Sin City decadence that comes off too obvious, and the male/female vocal duet here is uncomfortably shrill. Fortunately the album ends very well with the hypnotic “Trials,” a sonic feast of echoing string washes, light metallic percussion and sparkling piano beneath a soaring, multi-tracked vocal lead that stands with Corner's best work.
Any IAMX album is a challenging listen – not because of its musical quality, which is almost always high – but in the way Corner manages to wring intense feeling out of the simplest themes, and find warmth in the strangest blend of sounds; he can call up hope and despair in a single track, and leave you mentally spent after the record's hour has passed. Since The Unified Field tackles no less than the whole damn universe, you can expect to run the full gauntlet of emotional highs and lows here, but it's well worth the trip... and given the many dark corners (no pun intended, Chris) it explores, it's actually an uplifting experience.
Check out this spicy music video for one of the album's coolest tracks, “I Come With Knives”...