James Lavelle has never been afraid to think outside the box. With his ever-rotating wheel of collaborations, he has managed to maintain a prolific output of primarily electronic music enriched with a burgeoning wave of assorted styles and sounds over the past 25 years. Here, inspired by his experience curating the 2014 Meltdown Festival at London's Southbank, Lavelle presents UNKLE's fifth studio album. The mission statement for The Road, Pt. 1 was to create another unique effort that celebrates the history of its sound up until that moment, inspired by modern multicultural London. The opener, "Farewell," is a gorgeous piece with Lavelle's vocals passionately layered across a beautiful rich bed of strings and thudding, reverb-laden beats before moving on to the album's lead single, "Looking for the Rain," featuring longtime collaborator Mark Lanegan. It's a somewhat ominous yet inviting track comprising Eastern-style strings, synth leads, and pronounced percussion with Lanegan's unmistakable gravelly voice adorning the mix. As with previous appearances, his voice is the perfect choice to illustrate a picture that's so effectively painted through lyrics such as the chorus refrain of "There's a wraith-like shadow appearing/And though my eyes are veiled/I'm looking for the rain to fall," while a chugging, overdriven guitar carries the track verse to verse. The album maintains the more primary use of live instrumentation, like its predecessor, 2010's Where Did the Night Fall. However, pertaining to the unifying theme of Lavelle revisiting his roots in early production days and keeping one hand on the pulse of the present, there is an unmistakable dose of bold trip-hop from its beginnings, most identifiable in the album's treatment of percussion. Some of the collaborations here are also brand-new ones; "Cowboys or Indians" is a magnetic slab of electronica, punctuated with melancholy acoustic guitar, swimming synth bass, and punching snares, featuring Elliot Power, Mïnk, and YSÉE (Power's vocals are somewhat akin to frequent UNKLE collaborator Robert Del Naja, who is unfortunately absent this time around). "Nowhere to Run/Bandits" is another song to just feature Lavelle at the forefront vocally. Carried by a tireless thudding drum sound, tightly wound basslines, and Lavelle's languid yet rich and soothing vocals sitting atop a wave of dissonant guitar, it's a great mid-album stomper that effectively moves the listener along with it. An ethereal, magnetic, and alluring piece of work, The Road, Pt. 1 is a robust album with ebb and flow. Here's looking forward to Pt. 2.
AllMusic Review by Rob Wacey