“Traffic slow/Lights a haze/And all the smog/I’m in a daze,” sings Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano on “Brush The Heat,” conveniently summing up a vital component of the band’s haze-inducing new album in one succinct line. And yet, the Swedish electro-soul quartet does not lend itself to being defined so simply, and its third album is marked by contrast—one that is perhaps best described not by a lyric in a song but by the genre name itself: On Ritual Union, electronica and soul are merged and juxtaposed in every conceivable way.
When the album opens with rapid drumming on the title track, it presents so even a surface with the barebones stick pattern that anything could follow—and it does. Seconds later, the effects come into play, and shortly after that, Nagano’s pained, soul-tinged voice enters the picture—and suddenly, the dynamics of the instruments are no longer what captivate you. Her voice is childish but wise, innocent but well worn; it can dance teasingly right in front of your eyes or make you search for it as it reaches lows that almost get lost in the vivid electronic landscape that exists right below it.
Despite the layers of instruments, effects and filters, the album starts to feel monotonous in the middle. But, just before it can ever truly lose track of its goal, Nagano reenters with the soul that keeps Little Dragon from being merely another European electronica band with a cute story—although Little Dragon does in fact have a cute story about meeting in high school and taking its name from the nickname that Nagano earned due to her short temper in the studio. The horn on “Little Man” adds to that soul feel, and rather than blending in with the staccato electronica, it exists on top of it, completely separate and distinct.
Electronica bands run the risk of entering an ethereal, psychedelic realm and never leaving, but Little Dragon always maintains its tie to the tangible world through Nagano’s voice. While the filters and synths work tirelessly, so does she, never allowing her vocal power to be overshadowed. On “Nightlife,” the dichotomy between the two is shown most clearly as Nagano’s filtered, airy voice is layered over her own untouched voice—an effect that shows untapped potential—until the final seconds when the latter beats out the former, proving that no amount of effects can challenge a naturally grown note. The album is a beautiful, complicated marriage of the two—a ritual union in the truest sense.