The commercial face of the '80s jazz-funk movement, the unashamedly unfashionable Level 42 may have been ridiculed by the genre's purists, but their percussive slap-bass-heavy sound regularly competed with the likes of Sade and Simply Red for the decade's dinner party music of choice, while the band scored four consecutive Top Three albums and 20 chart hits before disbanding in 1994. Twelve years on, and one of the music scene's few bassist-cum-lead singers, Mark King, returns with their 11th studio album, Retroglide. He may be the only permanent original member left, but co-written by guitarist Boon Gould (whose brother Phil features on the uncredited arrangement of "Ship"), and with keyboardist Mike Lindup adding his trademark falsetto vocals to many tracks, it's the first album to feature all four founding musicians since 1987's Running in the Family. But loyal and patient fans expecting to hear the same kind of hook-laden and funky bass-led tunes of their heyday will be sorely disappointed, as apart from the manic thunder-thumb skills displayed on the melodic rock-tinged opener "Dive into the Sun," and the frenetic fretboard-showcasing of "Sleep Talking" which, bizarrely, features a breakneck speed rap from the unlikely MC King, its 11 tracks are very much at the progressive, ambient, and occasionally directionless end of proceedings. None more so than on the meandering, seven-minute "The Way Back Home" which opens with some clock-ticking sparse electronica before it chugs along slowly into a Johnny Hates Jazz-esque slice of over-polished new wave pop which suggests King hasn't spent the last 12 years listening to any music post-1987, a problem which swamps the self-produced LP. Elsewhere, "Ship" is a limp and plodding AOR ballad featuring an interminable prog rock guitar solo; "Just for You" is a monotonous, sub-Sting dirge which is instantly forgettable despite its seemingly neverending, repeated chorus, while the aimless "All Around," which features the quintessential '80s musical touch, the sax solo, is inoffensive incidental music at best. Having all but ignored their unique slap-bass sound which had previously set them apart from their fellow coffee-table contemporaries, Level 42 just sound like a very ordinary '80s wine bar house band. Those who don't want to tarnish their memories would be advised to give Retroglide a miss. Despite the few flashes of their old self, Retroglide is ultimately a poorly produced comeback which unfortunately hasn't been worth the wait.
AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien