Ever since Damon Albarn swapped the lo-fi Brit-pop of Blur to concentrate on a series of side-projects involving digitally animated hip-hop figures, an impressionistic rock supergroup, and a musical travelogue of Mali, the frontmen of the British alternative scene have been queuing up to prove their musical influences extend beyond the usual NME-friendly fare. Following Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner's venture into Burt Bacharach-esque lounge-pop territory with the Last Shadow Puppets, and Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys' brush with electro with Neon Neon, Ayrshire grunge rockers Biffy Clyro's lead vocalist, Simon Neil, is the latest to get in on the act with Marmaduke Duke, a conceptual rock duo based on a fictional 16th century character, alongside J.P. Reid of lesser-known Scottish outfit Sucioperro. Four years after the experimental psychedelic rock of limited-edition debut The Magnificent Duke, the pair return with a much less avant-garde and much more commercial sound for follow-up Duke Pandemonium, a move which may puzzle the longtime worshippers of their respective heavy rock bands, but could possibly attract a new fan base who have yet to succumb to the charms of their surprisingly melodic vocal abilities. When they really let loose and unleash their inner indie disco sensibilities, their reinvention works a treat. Full of jerky art rock riffs, funky disco basslines, and crotch-grabbing falsetto vocals, the tongue-in-cheek titled "Je Suis un Funky Homme" and the generic commands of "Everybody Dance" sound like Justin Timberlake fronting LCD Soundsystem. Elsewhere, "Rubber Lover" is a bright and breezy New Radicals-esque slice of infectious pop, albeit one about a blow-up doll, and is the most radio-friendly track either members have ever put their name to; "Heartburn" is a dark and brooding blend of grime beats, '80s synths, and haunting music box instrumentation featuring a middle-eight which appears to have wandered in from the first Burial album; while closing track "Skin the Mofo" is a daft but gleeful fusion of steel drums, squelchy techno, and jangly guitar hooks which ends with a barrage of laughter, as if the pair are revelling in the ridiculousness of it all. Less successful is when they revert back to the chaotic leanings of their debut, such as "Demon," a sprawling eight-minute attempt at a proggy epic which tackles space rock, gospel, country-blues, and ambient electronica, none very convincingly, and "Erotic Robot," a shambolic Jimi Hendrix-meets-CSS affair which appears to have taken the joke a little too far. But in the scheme of side-projects, Duke Pandemonium ensures that Marmaduke Duke are firmly in the Gorillaz camp rather than say, the disastrous British Whale or Tailgunner one. If the Atmosphere and the Dragon can reign in their over-ambitious tendencies, the much-rumoured final chapter in the Duke's trilogy should be a hoot.
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AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien