In the seemingly perpetual war of attrition going on between Polyphia and CHON to see who can reach the highest heights through impossibly technical yet smooth and groove-driven math-rock, it feels as though CHON are still in the lead. As much as Polyphia’s New Levels New Devils picked up mountains of acclaim last year for attempting to fuse laser-focused prog with trap and electronica, many seemed to forget how well CHON pulled off almost that exact experiment just a year earlier with Homey. It’s easy to see where the paths between the two deviate from there, but CHON’s still remains the more compelling, rooted in the prolificness and synapse-mangling fretboard work that tends to characterise this sort of instrumental prog, but with a languidness and almost a dreaminess that came bolstered by a handful of collaborations with electronic producers to craft a far more encompassing and enjoyable experience. Now, that all seems to have been stripped back for this self-titled follow-up to revert back to the core quartet, but given the wealth of creativity and inspiration that CHON have proven to be in their own right, there’s still a lot to be hopeful about to here.
So when it can be said that this album sounds like just another CHON album, it shouldn’t be taken as negatively as it might come across. They’ve still got skills and flair to burn on this one, continuing with the thread begun on Homey with a sound that’s definitely more chilled and almost balearic in its weaving, sweetened grooves, but still remains more than welcome to throw out spasmodic bursts of guitar whenever possible. And that can be part of the issue here. Where Homey felt adventurous and daring while leaning into an accessible bent, CHON’s self-titled effort pulls back from a lot of that, keeping the central sonic theme while removing some of weirder twists. In a way, that sort of streamlining can lead to an album that feels generally more cohesive, but when CHON can unequivocally do more than they’re showing on here, playing it so relatively straight and no-frills makes it a lot more prone to falling into the background.
Granted, this is a CHON album at the end of the day, which automatically puts both ‘straight’ and ‘no-frills’ in the most massive quotation marks imaginable. As always, the exquisitely prehensile guitar work is the main draw, kicking off with the fluttering Ghost and simply going forward from there with an infinitely versatile kinetic energy. It really feels like CHON boiling down their staple elements into a very quick-thinking, almost pop-friendly package; the free-flowing twists might be their bread and butter, but they never spiral away into self-indulgence, and the band are smart enough to know when to stop to avoid become lost in their own creations. Completed by a core backbone of similarly loose drumming from Brian Evans and a crisp production style that feels like a more cogent attempt at fusing themselves with the electronic music that Homey brought with it, CHON’s attempts to cut back and repurpose the already minuscule amount of fat on their last album still feels like an engaging listen. The almost jazz-influenced approach to freedom within their music can push it further into the background than previous albums, but the intricacies are enough to still keep it interesting.
But that’s ultimately a judgement made when viewing this album in a bubble; when placed in the context of CHON’s previous work (something that mightn’t be the most beneficial but, in terms of instrumental albums, is always necessary to do), there’s effectively no progression to be found here. As mentioned earlier, the general smoothness and airiness feels like CHON’s way of integrating their previous electronic influences and using them to bolster the core sound, and while that’s easy to recognise, overall more seems to have been taken away than added here. It’s a shame that that’s the case, not only because of how incredibly fruitful those moments proved to be on Homey, but also because, for a progressive rock album, it can feel rather staid, often unnecessarily so. That’s not to say this isn’t enjoyable on the whole – especially going into the summer when this sort of lightweight fare is exponentially more welcome, there’s certainly going to be a place for CHON in the realm of temperate yet challenging mood music – but it feels like, at this stage especially, they should be more than that. The reason that Homey felt as fresh as it did was because of CHON’s challenging nature and how it so effortlessly juxtaposed with a sound that’s so regularly not, but when that’s stripped away, the result can feel more like a framework than it really should.
And even then, none of that is to say that this is an awful album. CHON are still one of the most fascinatingly dexterous instrumental rock bands around, and when they embrace that, they can be difficult to top, but on this album, it’s never embraced quite enough. It’s not even as though they’re falling into a holding pattern either, but more so into a weird limbo where they’re still proudly wearing that excitement, but not moving forward enough to justify it. Maybe that’s a nitpick blown out of proportion, but considering the doors they blew open for themselves last time, to see them hanging back and only tentatively edging out of it can feel like a band not living up to their full potential. It’s still a solid listen, for sure, but CHON are capable of far more than being solid.
For fans of: Polyphia, Covet, Mouse On The Keys
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘CHON’ by CHON is out now on Sumerian Records.