[Peacefrog / EMI; 2011]

The timing for the release of Little Dragon’s third album Ritual Union could not be more perfect. In addition to the electronic soul quartet’s work with Gorillaz on Plastic Beach last year, frontwoman Yukimi Nagano has lent her signature pipes to R&B crooner Raphael Saadiq and post-dubstep producer SBTRKT, two of the most buzzed-about artists of 2011, and collaborations with Big Boi and DJ Shadow are on the way. Little Dragon has now risen to semi-ubiquity thanks to the combination of these prolific collaborations and the continuous accumulation of acclaim surrounding their first two LPs and mesmerizing live shows, and the band is now at the threshold of hitting the big time.

On their sophomore effort Machine Dreams, Little Dragon turned away from the downtempo jazz style of their eponymous debut in favor of a more upbeat, electropop direction. Although the lyrics in the opening title track might make marriage sound like an exercise in futility, “Ritual Union” represents unification between these two sides, combining a jazzy sheen with syncopated rhythms and minimal, danceable beats. Ritual Union as a whole is a marriage of the disparate, with Yukimi Nagano’s warm, soulful voice generally at odds with freezing synths and metallic percussions.

Opposites truly attract on Ritual Union, as they make for some of Little Dragon’s catchiest moments yet, with songs such as the title track and “Nightlight” being as infectious as Machine Dreams’ best. “Shuffle a Dream” irresistibly gallops along as it blends Nagano’s R&B styled vocals with in-your-face synthpop and a touch of glam. Yukimi Nagano’s hypnotic voice is more dynamic than ever on Ritual Union, shifting to a seductive tone for the finger-snapping “Little Man,” throws in a heart-wrenching cry of yearning with the sensual timbre on the throbbing “Please Turn,” and dials down to a distant, dreamy coo on closer “Seconds.”

If the world ever becomes a dystopia where mankind loses the war against technology, it would probably sound like “When I Go Out.” Here, Nagano has been assimilated by the machine and her voice is eerily pitched and distorted to robotic effect, with urgent tribal rhythms offering a touch of humanity as ominous synths growl like a hungry digital abomination. On “Brush the Heat,” come-hither vocals pull the listener through a claustrophobically layered amalgamation of dissonant synths, cowbells, high-pitched dog whistle effects, tense percussions and “la la” vocal loops.

It is these less immediate, experimental moments and the drum ‘n’ bass meets funk of “Precious” that make Ritual Union more than just an enjoyable listening experience. Rather, it’s an imaginative album of contrasts loaded with subtleties and potentially alienating nuances that necessitate a long-term commitment. While touring with Gorillaz, Bobby Womack advised Little Dragon to stay true to their art and themselves, and Little Dragon has evidently taken his words to heart. Little Dragon may be on the verge of a more mainstream stardom, but with Ritual Union, the band forges their own path and does not take the easy way out.