Doyens of orchestral disco celebrate 35th birthday with best album for aeons

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Close To The Pledge

While we await the next wildly futuristic move from Timbaland et al, EW&F have produced the soul album of the season by recapturing their late-’70s sound. EW&F were the gods of exorbitant symphonic dance. Oddly beloved of straight white casuals, with their jazzy polyrhythms and cosmological paraphernalia?the pyramids! the bacofoil spacewear!?they were like some insane hybrid of Yes and Funkadelic. But they haven’t made a decent album since 1981’s Raise! The sluggish attempt at contemporaneity that was 1990’s Heritage and its tepid follow-ups (1993’s Millennium and 1997’s In The Name Of Love), plus the fact that the chief architect of their epic funk is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, hardly augured well for this comeback. Miraculously, The Promise is full of the sort of joyous, juicy orch-funk that made EW&F the black crossover superstars of the ’70s.

With their commercial heyday long since past, EW&F’s 19th long-player is released in the UK by a small independent. And yet they’ve hardly scaled back in terms of lavish sonics. Conceived, as per their peak albums Gratitude, All ‘N All and I Am, by occasional vocalist, songwriter, producer and bandleader Maurice White, the Duke Ellington of disco, The Promise is refreshingly unconcerned with new developments in R&B. The majority of its 17 tracks are beautifully arranged midtempo beat-ballads, which is hardly damning them with faint praise when you consider that, with “After The Love Has Gone”, EW&F invented today’s “slow jamz”.

There are many fine additions to the quiet-storm catalogue on The Promise, and although the titles are blandly generic (including “Where Do We Go From Here?” from 1978’s I Am sessions) and the lyrics romantic pabulum, they are made sublime by the hooks, euphoric singing?leads taken either by White or the octave-leaping Philip Bailey?and superlative musicianship. Only White, his superfreak bro’Verdine, Bailey and percussionist Ralph Johnson remain of the classic line-up, but today’s EW&F retain the near-robotic efficiency of yore. Rhythmically, only Kraftwerk are this tight. Factor in the strings and horns and you’ve got some rapturous aphrodisiac muzak.

One of pop’s most consistent hit machines, with a chart run to rival The Jam, Blondie or The Police, EW&F are braving daytime radio’s current revulsion towards Old Artists and releasing “All In The Way” as a single, on which co-stars The Emotions shoo-bee-do just like they did on “Boogie Wonderland”. There might not be anything as ecstatically infectious as “September” or “Shining Star” here, and some tracks are OTT-ishly syrupy, but for sustained sumptuousness The Promise knocks most “nu soul” into a cocked hat.