It feels odd to be digging into the past so intently in dubstep, a young genre that is as currently ‘forward-thinking’ as ever. Be out for a few days and you could miss out on a life-changing release or pass by an upcoming artist set to revolutionize the genre; it’s a restless, fidgety world where tracks only a year old are considered old news. But Cloud Seed, the long-awaited second album by British duo Vex’d, is completely worth all the discontinuity and conflicted emotions. The much-delayed follow up to their dubstep masterpiece Degenerate is easily its equal. With work having been started as early as 2006 and still not completely finished, the LP’s running order is fleshed out with assorted tracks and remixes from the post-Degenerate era, but you’d never guess, such is the genius of the sequencing. You might not even know any of these were remixes instead of true Vex’d tracks, except maybe that unmistakable vocal in Distance’s “Fallen;” but even that track fits in here as
So basically we’ve got an album made up of stray unreleased tracks and a bunch of b-sides; it shouldn’t be good. And it’s not, really — it’s better than good. Vex’d have returned hard with their strongest tunes ever, more streamlined, more aggressive, all tempered by a new sense of tension and ambience. Where previous Vex’d tracks might have had small brooding sections and pockets of silence, that tendency blooms here, full-blown ambient interludes that lend Cloud Seed a cinematic scope. It’s like the soundtrack for a movie far too idealized to exist, rising and falling deliberately where Degenerate was a near-nonstop thriller.
The ambient interludes vary from classical-tinged mood pieces to industrial field recordings; “Remains of the Day” sets the stage after the massive opener with construction sounds, the sound of that under-construction metropolis on the album cover, while the dual-pronged soundscape of “Shinju Bridge” and “Slug Trawl Depths” takes us down to the grimy streets just in time for the incredible Jamie Vex’d remix of Plaid’s “Bar Kimura,” where the buildings fall down around you as disconnected vocals thunder from the angry heavens. There are two Vex’d remixes of modern classical pieces that drone and rumble ominously, and perhaps more importantly quite a few slices of good old Vex’d aggro: a jackhammer remix of the single-only “Killing Floor,” the closest thing to a Degenerate track in “Out Of The Hills,” and the unfiltered rage and snarling distortion of closer “Nails,” quite possibly the most sonically impressive Vex’d track yet. If that weren’t enough, they’ve finally realized latent potential and started working with vocalists, and diverse vocal spots from Warrior Queen, Anneka and American MC Jest provide some of the LP’s most engaging moments.
Cloud Seed kicks off with one of these, the massive “Take Time Out,” in only its first minute signaling that the duo has significantly upgraded its sonic toolbox, a wide-open soundstage with humongous multi-layered percussion, Warrior Queen spitting apocalyptically over a 2020 chain gang, looming over the landscape with inhuman fury and sounding more ferocious than I’ve ever heard her: every word is deliberately pronounced (!) as if it were a finely-honed weapon. Anneka makes a rather different appearance than her lovely turn on Starkey’s “Stars,” her stately coo turning wry and confident as Vex’d unfurl a fierce a Distance style dread riddim, another track whose aggression is contained in its restraint, building off of tension rather than letting loose a flurry of distorted percussion. On “Disposition,” with Jest, they build a convincing hip-hop beat for Jest to rap over, revealing yet another facet of their seemingly limitless potential.
I’m still not sure quite how they did it, but with Cloud Seed Vex’d have made a tight, fully-realized sequel to their incredible debut. It’s not even just that this record is remarkable given the way it was constructed, good by circumstance — it’s a great record completely on its own terms, much better than it deserves to be. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for other artists who struggle to create worthwhile LPs while these guys are casually making classics out of their old and forgotten tracks. But the rest of us can just sit and enjoy it, content with the fact that the second — and probably last — Vex’d LP is finally out. It’s honestly a little bittersweet because the amount of growth shown in these recordings is nothing short of astounding, and further growth has likely been permanently stunted. But there’s no sense in dwelling on the past. Or maybe there is, I just don’t know anymore.