“In a profound sense, underneath two decades of relentless sonic mutation, this is the same music, the same culture.” That’s critic Simon Reynolds in his 2009 introduction to a series of essays he wrote chronicling what he calls the “hardcore continuum” – the pervading evolution of British underground dance music since the late 1980s. It’s a phrase I haven’t heard in a while, but it’s one that keeps coming up around London dubstep collective LHF. As an American raised in the rural northeast, I’m about as far removed from the continuum as one can be. The world view accompanying the phrase reminds me of the mythos surrounding early 90s hip-hop – less a genre of music and more a connective, multi-faceted culture, often arriving with its own grassroots philosophies, the music in continual, organic symbiosis with the now-transcendent culture which it birthed.
As an outsider-looking-in type, my exposure to the culture is most immediately perceived via the music itself, and I wonder how dubstep’s storied rise and fall over the past seven years has reflected back on the continuum. And what does that say about music grounded by economics and geography and everyday life? What does that say about art created from the necessity of a culture’s shark-like evolution? Pointless armchair exercises, perhaps. In any case, I’d say we – the removed, headphones-only listeners – haven’t heard from the continuum much since 2009. By that I mean, the music itself has been harder to trace to its roots. Untrue isn’t really a London record anymore, it’s more of a lonely nocturnal ideal. Likewise, dubstep, garage, and jungle, as culturally grounded, multi-ethnic, economically constrained mutations don’t really mean what they used to.
LHF’s debut LP as a collective, Keepers of the Light, might be written off by some as a throwback to dubstep near the middle of last decade. But it seems to me there’s a more deep-seated reason LHF are being touted as purveyors of the hardcore continuum. More deep-seated than the presence of the collective’s mentor and Keysound label-head, Martin Clark, a known purveyor himself. LHF’s music is rough, of a place, and human. It sounds and feels clasped within a living, breathing world, the result of seven dudes’ individual perspectives and interests grounded in a reality as complex as it really is. All that instead of simply adhering to whatever those aforementioned genre tags mean or going after evolution for its own sake.
LHF is made up of No Fixed Abode, Amen Ra, Double Helix, and Low Density Matter. All take up their own significant chunks of Keepers of the Light, but the LP is still impressively uniform. The crew likes their wafting film dialog, bone-dense jungle rhythms, and eclectic pulp world music sampling. Keepers is skeletal and raw, indicative of the sound of dubstep as it was transitioning out of 2-step and garage and the club while remaining conscious of what proceeded the move, specifically turn-of-the-century mutations of rave and jungle with flourishes of atmospheric drum & bass. It fixates obsessively on its samples, rhythmic intricacy, and stubborn song structures, each track building higher and higher (or wider and wider) around repeated motifs and hollowed out production (as opposed to artful negative space) rather than melody and hooks. It’s antithetical to what spearheading dubstep labels like Hotflush or R&S have (commendably) done with the sound.
But Keepers‘ most critical and strongest attribute is its raw and homemade personality. LHF is as much of a “throwback” because of overall approach. The LP doesn’t sound made on computers and its samples sound like they required some honest-to-god digging and dusting off to find. And all that without sounding like that’s what it was supposed to sound like (no vinyl crackle or clipped waveforms). But it’s ultimately a testament to the specificity of Keepers‘ darkened, primeval atmosphere and the choice of words the crew uses to speak in place of their anonymity. In the abstract, LHF reminds me of how RZA approached his early work – a connection the collective makes without me via dialog plucked off of Liquid Swords and 36 Chambers. Even without MCs on top of the productions you got a pretty good sense of person behind them, doing a lot with a little. LHF’s sensibilities tend toward the psychedelic, the (sometimes portentously) metaphysical, and urban disillusionment, all of which is represented in the music itself.
Atmosphere is the other thing going for Keepers. Imagine Zoviet France-esque tribal-futurism and dubstep’s urban isolation applied to the cityscapes of Mumbai, Dubai, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Johannesburg filtered through a compressed FM radio scan and a broader pop culture outlook (samples from The Matrix: Reloaded and Lord of the Rings, for example). For my money, Amen Ra has the best handle on the would-be LHF sound. “Essence Investigation” is a storm of delicious Southeast Asian percussion while a lurking Mid Eastern instrument texture slithers around its base, chewed up LFOs pulsing occasionally (for bonus WTF points he/they also turn an infant’s laugh into a weirdly awesome and unidentifiable honking synth-like texture). Though they log the least amount of time, Low Density Matter and No Fixed Abode aren’t slouches by any means with standouts like “Blue Steel” and “Indian Street Slang”. Double Helix is a grand contender as well, displaying perhaps the strongest straight-up production chops of the group. “LDN” is an immaculately pieced together arrangement of evil-sounding synth squalls, hand drums, and sci-fi siren pulses. And “Akashic Visions” is a stewing river of gently warped vocal samples dragged over a stomping drum & bass percussion loop.
And that’s the thing, Keepers of the Light might be a whopping two and half hours (!), two CDs, and twenty-six tracks, but every song reads like the above. Each sits securely on its own, the next more jaw dropping than the last. It plays like the best dubstep singles collection never released, typifying the genre’s bruised and reclusive paranoia while transcending it. In fact, the most effective way to consume Keepers is one track at a time. In that light, it’s hard to securely mark the LP up as a product of any specific era or as anything inessential. The samples themselves and their sources are compelling enough to carry Keepers of the Light in the same way a J Dilla, Madlib, or Flying Lotus (or Burial, for that matter) record does as a collage of re-appropriated, re-contextualized cultural artifacts used as the foundation of something individual and meaningful. Keepers of the Light is as much of a singular expression of the hardcore continuum as it is an exploration of it, but maybe the best way to soak in its two and half hours is as a richly constructed sound world unto itself.