Passion is a diverse album from an artist who's been serving up varied offerings throughout his career. Beginning his forays into production more than a decade ago with an MPC and hip-hop in mind, Para One eventually shifted his aim towards adventurous dance music, becoming a mainstay of the sadly now-defunct Institubes label and, more recently, pushing a steady current of releases through the Marble imprint (which he heads up along with Surkin and Bobmo). Without a doubt, Passion is the French producer's most distinct and rewarding release to date, running through house, techno, boogie, and even bits of hip-hop and R&B with a warped funkiness and a keen sense for endlessly vibrant sonic colorings.
Despite the genre restlessness Para One demonstrates on this LP, there is one constant throughout the record—a genuine sense of fun. With the exception of the opening ambient intro, "Ice Cold," and the closing slow-motion spaceflight R&B of "Empire," moments of moodiness and lonely contemplation on this album are rare. Instead, the record takes on a soulful playfulness that renders it pleasantly disarming. Passion seems to be Para One's attempt at crafting a "pop record," not only because a handful of songs feature vocalists, but also because the tracks are mostly upbeat and rely on catchy hooks and memorable progressions to draw in the listener. This can be dangerous territory, and in recent times it has resulted in less than stellar records, such as Soul Clap's E-Funk and L-Vis 1990's Neon Dreams. Yet Para One seems to have landed on a working equation, tying the various ends of his production inclinations together into a cohesive package that guides the listener just enough to follow along with its constant movements.
One of the big reasons this record works so well is its enthralling production value. Since the early days of his career, Para One has seemed bent on bridging a sonic connection between the digital and analog worlds, and here they are more seamlessly fused together than ever before. With lush synth chords, crisp drum machines, and slippery bass as his main components, the rich, clean sound structures serve as the main source of cohesion, no matter which end of the genre spectrum he's operating in. Most surprisingly of all, this allows for Para One to fit the occasional slice of hip-hop into the mix, such as "Vibrations Followed by Poison A," a song which runs steadily as a garage-style club tune (albeit with a healthy dose of brightness added to the mix) before giving way to a no-nonsense piece of jazzy, instrumental hip-hop á la Dilla, 9th Wonder, etc. How all this manages to fit into the same audio context is a truly impressive feat.
But even the nerdiest audio fanatic would admit that a record is nothing without songs, and Passion has plenty to offer in this respect. The album's first real composition, "Wake Me Up," begins the record by immediately indulging in the unexpected, delivering an effort that clearly takes cues from IDM with its bouncing micro-samples (think Akufen's "Jeep Sex") and manic, off-kilter drum fills (think somewhere between µ-Ziq and Prefuse 73), but also stays relaxed and focused on a single clap which serves as the constant from which the other parts hang. From there we move into more familiar territory—"Sigmund" and "Vibrations" are improvements on the kind of hyperactive, percussion-based tracks that have marked Para One's more recent output; "Love Ave.," "Albatross," and "Empire" cool things off with slices of glistening downtempo; and "Every Little Thing," "When the Night," and "Lean On Me" present the only vocals the album has to offer, wrapping these somewhat goofy contributions in thick and gooey space-age funk. With the exception of the skittering, Teki Latex-featuring "Lean On Me" (which again finds a non-obtuse way to fold in the influence of IDM), these vocal songs account for the only real duds on Passion, as the performances of Para One's collaborators are solid but fail to mesh perfectly with his underlying production.
Without question, the album's standout is "You." Laced with a skipping shuffle, it's the kind of song that's recognizable from the first bar and, fortunately, Para One manages to lead us through the bouncing synths and melodic vocal chops with a veteran's sense for natural progression and an ability to balance the song's pop core without removing it from the context of intelligent club music. "You" may even be the only tune so far this year to challenge Todd Terje's "Inspector Norse" in catchiness, danceability, and ubiquitous appeal. When the melodic breakdown drops just before the two-minute mark, it teeters as close to cliché as possible, but smartly keeps things brief and ends up being just about perfect, because who doesn't appreciate an expertly executed breakdown now and then?
Passion may be an ambitious record from beginning to end, but listening to it is a breeze. There is never a daunting challenge to one's ears throughout the album's entire run, and still, it comes across as an intelligent and finely executed affair. Combining an adventurous spectrum of dance music with an effortless touch of playful soulfulness, Para One's sophomore LP is his best record to date and an interesting snapshot of an electronic-music scene that appears poised to continue mashing genres together until we can't tell anything apart. Let's hope the results of such gallant hybrids continue to yield such rewarding results.