“The mix should represent where we’re at now,” Disclosure said of their DJ-Kicks mix in 2021. “And where we’re at now is clubby.” Two years since Guy and Howard Lawrence turned in that seamlessly blended selection of opalescent deep house and fleet-footed garage—a set notably free of the kinds of big, belting, attention-grabbing vocals that they built their reputation on—their attitude doesn’t appear to have changed. The brothers have spent the past 13 years zigzagging between insidery dance music and big-tent pop, with mixed results. Alchemy, their first release since the conclusion of their major-label contract, is clearly meant as a reboot, repositioning them as dance artists who happen to make hits, rather than chart aspirants dabbling in club tropes.
Though there are vocals here, the grooves come first: fast-paced, winkingly contemporary takes on house and garage where the kick drums flutter and the filters fizz. They’ve made the shift in focus an explicit selling point: Alchemy is billed as their first album with no features and no samples. That’s a pronouncement presumably meant to get the attention of dance scenesters who may have lost interest in Disclosure around the time they started working with people like Lorde and the Weeknd. It’s a gambit with some intrigue (even if, for many acts, announcing a dance album with no features would be like unveiling a fish with no bicycle). But, beyond the jockeying for scene cred, the main takeaway is that Alchemy is fresher and more fun than Disclosure have sounded in ages.
On 2020’s Ecstasy EP and again on 2021’s Never Enough, Disclosure briefly canted away from the vocal-heavy pop that had become their bread and butter, but Alchemy marks the first time in a long time that they’ve dedicated themselves so thoroughly to pure dance music. Where those EPs jumped between Afropop edits, disco samples, and garage throwbacks, the new LP is held together by a sleekly unified palette. Reflecting the speedy tempos currently in vogue across dance-music subcultures, the grooves trundle away at a rollicking clip; save for two brief, beatless interludes, nothing dips below 135 BPM, and a couple are much faster. The drum programming emphasizes a sense of forward motion driven by skipping syncopations and a slippery sense of swing. The opening “Looking for Love” draws on the rushing cadence of vintage speed garage. “Simply Won’t Do,” which plays a killer bassline off silky vocal chops, sounds like an updated Basement Jaxx with a little bit of French touch thrown in and the pitch fader glued to +8. “Higher Than Ever Before” is like a counterfactual thought experiment: What might a golden-age jungle remix of Tame Impala sound like? And “A Little Bit,” which closes out a strong four-track opening stretch, is an irresistibly syrupy, sentimental trance-house banger that sinks its hooks deeper with every twist of the chord progression.
Disclosure have always had a strong ear for nuance, and it’s the details that really make Alchemy sing. Rather than hitting you over the head with a drop, they might mute the kick drum right when you expect it to hit, making its sudden reappearance that much more delightful. They favor vibrant organ-like patches which, when combined with their richly augmented chords, lend an unusually enveloping cast to the synths. And they flesh out Auto-Tune with thick, vocoder-like processing, pouring harmonies on top of harmonies until they feel like cascading rainbows.
There are occasional missteps. “Go the Distance,” the only song that pushes the vocals to the front of the mix, reverts to a forgettably bluesy hook that tries too hard to be cool and sexy, particularly given lyrics that read more like motivational hashtags: “Fuck resistance/We’ll go the distance,” “When there’s nowhere left to hide/How do you want to die,” etc. (Then again, this is a group that kicked off its debut album with a song built around a big, honking sample of a self-help guru.) They do better when they strip their lyrics back to a single refrain—like the endearingly dopey hook of “Higher Than Ever Before”—or sink them like marshmallows into the Jell-O of their digital processing.
Those moments of gelatinous concord—where synths, drums, and vocals come together in a supersaturated blend—exemplify Alchemy at its best. One song, the reverberant 45-second a cappella “Someday…,” sounds like they’ve been listening to Duval Timothy’s intricate harmonic pivots. And on “Sun Showers,” they channel decades of dance tropes—flickering trance gates, wiggly bassline, finely diced coos and sighs—into one of the most effortlessly propulsive floor-fillers of their career. In moments like these, Alchemy taps into a sense of lightness buoying one particularly inventive strain of dance anthem right now—a bubbly, spirited style plied by artists like Two Shell, Overmono, and Pangaea. It sounds good on Disclosure. For the first time in a while, it sounds like they’re listening to what’s happening in clubland and asking themselves not what they can poach for the charts, but what they can bring to the table.