They say old friends are the best kind. While I’m slightly skeptical about that, as I have a number of homies that I wouldn’t intentionally befriend now but share enough history with that it’s too late, the adage certainly appears to hold true for genre-hopping Chicago production duo Tensei. Tensei’s members, Midas Wells and Simple X, were dorm-mates and production buddies at Southern Illinois University in the late nineties before losing touch, and you know, growing up. Apparently, they serendipitously ran into each other a couple years back and decided to start producing music together again- and serendipitous is definitely the right word, because they’ve got some pretty significant skills in the lab.
Their new EP, One, comes via LA’s Plug Research label and features nine tracks (as well as a couple bonuses featuring a number of guests) and spans damned near every known genre of downtempo electronic music. What sets One apart from a host of other good electronic productions currently floating around out there is the grip of live musicians contributing, including guitars, violins, sitars, harpists and pianists, all tastefully tweaked by Tensei to fit in without apearing ‘layered over’ or in any way unnatural. The other major factor that One has going for it is that it covers enormous patches of stylistic ground with relish and aplomb- opening track “Acid Reign” recalls trip-hop with its twinkling harps and hushed female vocal, “For The Love” is bouncy, bassy boom-bap, “Fly Trap” and “The Minotaur” mine darker, more jagged territory, “Smash Mouth” is a love letter to dub reggae, with Afrobeat and jazz influences coming and going throughout the entire record.
While a lot of producers would find themselves spread too thin attempting that kind of diversity and stoop to rote, uninteresting tricks or give each style only a cursory, superficial glance, Tensei really dig in with these tracks, giving each one dynamics and breadth many single-genre producers would be wise to aspire to. Only “Smash Mouth,” is anything but an unqualified success, as the synth stabs and “whoop” vocal samples are a touch over the top, but the bonus-track version (featuring verses from Scud One, Phenom and The Ones) takes it from an almost-awesome reggae track to a slice of impressive hip-hop braggadocio. Scarlet Monk’s arresting vocal turn on the bonus version of “Flytrap” warrants mention, as well- her voice is rough, smoky and drenched in reverb, making the lyrical content about “sexy” and “dangerous” being anything but mutually exclusive seem like an immediate concern for the listener.
Tensei may not break any new ground on One but they cover a staggering amount of it. One can hope that they push the envelope a little further in their future productions, but that’s no knock on this EP. It’s a pretty impressive sampler, demonstrating profiency (and, in many cases, mastery) in a wide swath of possible production paths, and it’ll be interesting to see whether they choose to narrow their focus for subsequent releases or continue to run the gamut.