Singing provides a human element to electronic music. While the genre’s computer-driven production may come off as mechanical, vocalists suggest something more emotive – heartbreak, isolation, exuberance, and so forth. Take for example SBTRKT’s self-titled debut, a record that showcases the human voice in its all-natural form. Even amongst his elaborate arrangements, the vocals never shy away from commanding the spotlight.
Comparisons between SBTRKT and James Blake are over-exaggerated. Notwithstanding their love for soul, their approaches to mood and texture couldn’t be more different. While Blake features melancholic atmospheres of reverb and space, SBTRKT creates high-spirited club beats. This is danceable music from the get go: where kick drums drop in and out of the mix perfectly, where synthesizers sound immaculately crisp, where audio filters provide a song’s much-needed boost. And SBTRKT never hits you over the head with over-experimental ideas. Instead, he creates music that’s energetic, shamelessly accessible, and fun to listen to.
Accompanying the production are a variety of R&B-esque singers with impressive ranges. This includes Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, newcomer Jessie Ware, and long-time collaborator Sampha, who provides most of the melodic material. “Wildfire” stands out as particularly stunning; a synth-heavy track that showcases a back-and-forth exchange between SBTRKT’s whomping bass-line and Yukimi’s seductive vocals. She sings, “You’re innocence drowning in / would you save me? / It’s a crime if you don’t.” It’s the kind of track where the vocal melody is just as necessary as the instrumental one – a feat for both singer and producer alike. And the manner in which SBTRKT keeps Yukimi’s vocals as naked as possible gives the song a much-needed sense of human feeling. This is electronic music, sure, but certainly from the heart.
As a beat maker, SBTRKT has a keen awareness for complex arrangements. “Heatwave” demonstrates a mixture of repetitious synthesizers with stammering, offbeat drums; to the point where rhythmical discernment becomes impractical. In “Sanctuary,” a central synth-melody transforms into a profusion of layered pads, arpeggio sounds, and “ooh” and “ahh” vocals. Both of these songs, though ornately produced, never come off as overwrought. Rather, SBTRKT manages to pack the brim with just the right amount of resonance.
SBTRKT’s debut is an impeccably produced record that exemplifies an engaging mixture of soulful vocals and intricately layered electronics. While SBTRKT takes a safer approach with his quieter tracks (“Trials of the Past,” “Hold On”), he never comes off as tedious. He’s a melodious producer that treats his vocals just as delicately as his software sequencing. And whether or not you agree with his user-friendly approach, you’ll be hard pressed not to admire his strive for perfection. Keep an eye out: his future is bright.