Following the praise heaped on debut single 'Without You' (Resident Advisor's single of the year in 2009) The Drawing Board suffers a little under the weight of expectation. It also veers somewhat from claustrophobic and imprisoned to liberated and fancy-free, the latter most definitely being preferable. The album feels lost inside its own ego at times - Art Department's sound has been dubbed "Gothic House" by DJ Mag and to my ears, that isn't a compliment. But at its best this is a work of restraint - the listener left to explore by the space that exists within the composition.
This dichotomy is perfectly epitomised by second track 'Tell Me Why (Part I)' and its sister track, the penultimate 'Tell Me Why (Part II)'. Both are dark, chugging tech-house numbers but the shorter, second part starts stripped of its beat and when it eventually throws a loose bass line into the mix it is accompanied by some jazzy vibes to create a disconcerting collage of sounds. It is both at once paranoid and blissfully unaware. Unfortunately the longer, earlier version has none of the subtlety - it aims for soulful but feels nagging and, sadly, dull. Kenny Glasgow's vocals just feel uninspired and turgid.
There are highlights however. 'Vampire Nightclub' is Art Department at their best. With a slow build and plenty of room, it feels much more like it takes its time than 'Tell Me Why' and that's because, at ten-minutes long, it does. The difference is that something actually happens during all of that time. What makers of modern day tech-house often miss when taking inspiration from their techno forefathers is the importance of progression. Early techno feels revelatory because of its overtly futuristic aesthetic, but it wouldn't have been anything if those early tracks, such as Derrick May's 'Strings of Life', didn't build and evolve. 'Vampire Nightclub' is the best track on this album because it doesn't stay in one place - unlike much here it builds and adds texture.
'In The Mood' also shines, taking the same break used in Q-Tip's 'Breath & Stop'. Here, in the context of The Drawing Board, its brief three-minutes feels raw, intimate and urgent.
Ultimately Art Department could do with taking a little advice from the sample that closes their own (admittedly great) 'What Does It Sound Like': "You gotta always remember the name of the game is what does is sound like?" Too often it feels like the duo believe their own hype.
The Drawing Board has promise but ultimately seriously misfires in a few places due to the over use of meaningless 'soulful' vocals and, sadly, a lack of ideas. Take half of this album and you have some well put together, intelligent dance music - just leave that other half.