It hasn’t taken long for the neon-imbued world of the Night Slugs crew to gain their current cultural capital. In the constantly shifting world of U.K. bass music, where movements accelerate and disintegrate from one Rinse podcast to the next, label co-owners Alex Sushon (Bok Bok) and James Connolly (L-Vis 1990) have stuck to their guns the old fashioned way, relentless participation in every aspect of their business and unending promotion of an open book policy their formula for success. It keeps working: Connolly moved from Brighton to London in ‘08 and the first Night Slugs party wasn’t long after. The label’s first official release was in January of 2010. They were already celebrating themselves last November. There’s no struggle to keep up when you’re heading the discussion.
In a way, Connolly’s full-length debut under the L-Vis name is a rough summation of the Night Slugs label itself (ironic given this is being released on Universal/Island subsidiary PMR). The co-owners have made it clear they have no interest in a unified sound and that “any game is fair game” has been their M.O. regardless of venue; as long as a 707 and some old school synths are in the mix, the future-forward thrust works itself out. The results have spoken for themselves.
Neon Dreams takes the at-any-cost ambition to heart — so much so that I don’t know what I’m listening to most of the time. A carefully crafted concept album of “love and life over the last year?” A slapdash compendium of L-Vis essentials? Who is the intended audience? An astral synth zooms in. A voice intones, “A blaze of crimson light telling its own story, becoming a sight to dwell upon.” Superfluous mood-setter “Vague Flashes” segues to L-Vis 1990’s most recognizable hit, “Forever You” and you think after a moment of doubt that you’ve sorted it out with a monster of an album, especially when Connolly’s highest profile song is so early in the order.
There are plenty of hits to be had. “Play it Cool,” “Tonight,” “One More Day,” even “Shy Light” is one horrendous Pitbull verse away from ubiquitous radio play. But Neon Dreams is caught halfway between the clubstep of its creator’s origins and the 80s pop sheen he’s striving toward. Balearic house, two-step stutters, tidal synth stargliding: All hands are on deck.
That’s the most frustrating part. Connolly sounds like he wants to go for the pop jugular with some of these tracks and guest vocalists, but reins himself in on other more conservative songs ("The Beach," "Illusions") and we’re thrown off from one to the next. For the listener, that future-forward thrust doesn’t work itself out. It’s dance music at its most erratically supple.
But I thought that’s what we loved about the Night Slugs posse. Isn’t suppleness the reason we looked forward to this release (or any other) in the first place? We take this record to task for its lack of focus and frustrating pop teases, but critical disappointment is as confusing as Neon Dreams itself. Connolly makes painfully obvious gestures toward the pop world (PMR’s mission statement is to "release forward thinking pop music in a completely non-flashy way"), but he still includes the bassline instrumentals of his origins. This isn’t the clean break that he’s capable of and that a lot of people wanted.
There’s Night Slugs in a nutshell, then. If you knock this, you probably don’t love them as much as you thought.