Let’s be honest here; dubstep isn’t really dubstep anymore. Sure, nobody knows what to call it instead, but from London to Bristol to Glasgow to Los Angeles, what was once dubstep has spread like that alien virus The Spaceape warned us about. Hybridized, bastardized and globalized, it’s evolved at a rate that would make Darwin blush. With that comes a lot of confusion; labels proliferate like an arms race and fantastic 12″s drop every week. To guide you through this confusing neon dystopia, two e-dilettantes from Canada and New Zealand are on hand to provide a monthly rundown on some of the more notable recent releases.
This debut edition of The Month In Dubstep was written by Andrew Ryce [AR] and Sam Olson [SO].
Peverelist’s wonderful Punch Drunk label had a spectacular 2009, spearheaded by two majestic singles from Guido (if you don’t have either of these, what are you waiting for?). It’s only January, but Punch Drunk are already hitting us with another great 12″ to usher in the new year. This time we’re guided by Shortstuff (who collaborated with Brackles and Geiom on two excellent Planet Mu singles last year) and Hyetal (whose “Pixel Rainbow Sequence” got remixed by Peverelist to truly spectacularly effect). For this new 12″, we’re in similar territory, falling somewhere between the raw digital funk of Gemmy and the swooning synthetic orchestrations of Guido. The lurid yellow-on-pink of the sleeve is a good indication of what’s inside; “Don’t Sleep” wraps neon-bright synths into knots, lock-step drums holding steady while melodies swim in and out of focus. It’s dazzling, like staring into a glowing purple sun. On the other side, “Ice Cream” is all dreamy romantic swirl, synthesizers melting from the humidity, big fat chords wilting as the drums bubble underneath. But it’s those delicate chiptune melodies that blow through it like a breeze that really catch me, wistful and sweet, like a memory of you and her together, holding hands on a deserted beach while the sun daubs the sky in vivid smears. If this is the way Punch Drunk are kicking off the year, I can’t wait to see what’s next. [SO]
DVA’s debut single for Hyperdub is the sound of UK Funky eating itself. You can hear the digestive acid corroding “Natty” and by the time you get to b-side “Ganja” there’s a noticeable chunk of something missing. One of Funky’s Fantastic Four, DVA takes the propulsive and percussive joy of Funky and makes it suitable for Hyperdub in the same way Kode9 and Cooly G did last year — by starving it until almost all its life has evaporated. These are skeletal tracks — emaciated so that you can see all their angles and contours, their wireframes. DVA gives both these tracks a militant lurch, turning funky’s distinctive rhythm into something more characteristic of a death march. “Natty” is an arch, stiff thing with powerful percussion and occasional syncopation that makes it sound like the man is doing his best to make a sizable dent your skull, or at least give you a headache. “Ganja” pulls the bass out from under the drums, replacing it with deep blankets of sub-bass moan and overlaying the neutered, skittering percussion with an Ikonika-style wonky synth, somehow sounding both deathly serious and sarcastically tongue-in-cheek. Adding a twisted new dimension to the joke — or ghastly spectre, depending on how you see it — is a single steel drum hit that appears in the song’s second half, sounding almost mocking, lacking any of the joy that pervades that other track with the steel drums. You know the one. But whether you’re dancing to it or cowering in the corner, there’s no question that DVA has crafted something unique, and most importantly, huge, even considering its minimalistic components. [AR]
Idle Hands is a new label run out of Peverelist’s Rooted Records store in Bristol. This is only their second release (after a mysterious showing from the prolific ‘Unknown’), and it’s absolute fucking dynamite. First up is Hanuman’s “Bola”, reworked by the underrated Atki2. It’s one of these tropical house variations on dubstep: the first thing that hits you is the metallic clatter of the drums, steel blades flashing in a carnival street. It’s baked-hot and breathless, this joyous, relentless pulse. But as great as the sound of that central beat is, it’s the little flourishes that really sell the track. Those soft, cloudy chords that drift in when the beat breaks down; that doleful little melody built up bleep by bleep, R2D2 spinning in the void; the strafing raygun synths. It’s a great track, but over on the flipside is Atki2 and Dub Boy’s “Tigerflower,” which is fucking phenomenal. It opens with this wonderful steel drum riff, Esso barrels lined up on an island shore. Then the handclaps drop and it comes on all whirling dervish, like a Bollywood street scene. It detours into skanking reggae before the bass hollows it out all dubwise and sinister just for a moment before the steel drums come ringing back in again and it’s dizzying and delightful and fucking perfect. It morphs in similar fashion for the rest of the track, this twisting, kaleidoscopic riff snaking through styles with abandon, picking up and discarding elements but never losing track of the groove. It’s sunstroke in the crowded streets, held up by the press of bodies around you; the sun is a glowing hole in the sky and the world is suffused with heat and light. Unbelievably infectious, it’s pure dancefloor euphoria and one of the best single tracks I’ve heard in a while. If I was Grievous Angel, I might be nervous about sullying this masterwork, but he tweaks it into a nice funky groove, hitting hard over pitched-up synths. Good as the remix is, it’s the original version of “Tigerflower” that’s going to own my summer. [SO]
I’d say that Raffertie has gone completely batshit insane, if only he wasn’t already. Once again, the Birmingham producer is unleashing his wobble horror on the unsuspecting folks at Planet Mu, and it’s a killer. Literally — it sounds like he’s murdering a diva. “7th Dimension” takes the chopped, percussive vocal sampling of “Hyph Mngo” and turns it into an anguished squawk, repeated incessantly to almost humourous effect. Screaming, melismatic vocals swirl around the central sample and a drum machine plays the same single kick drum hit at about 200BPM — what the fuck is going on here? Just when it starts to border on cacophony, Raffertie pulls out the beat and replaces it with something a little bit more conventional — until the line between synth and vocal disappears and you realize that the tempo isn’t going to stay the same for any longer than thirty seconds. The track proceeds to stumble through house, techno, dubstep, drum and bass, and something that sounds dangerously like grindcore, only to slow things down for a (relatively) chilled-out outro with a bass riff that could probably dislodge a few boulders from any nearby mountain. Seven dimensions indeed. It’s offensive, ridiculous, maybe a little insulting, and certainly hard to sit through, but just like that little kid right after vomiting on his first roller-coaster ride, you’ll be raring to go again right after you clean up the mess you’ve made all over yourself. Thrilling stuff. Flip-side “String Theory” has a lot to live up to, and it does an admirable job of providing a decent come-down after your little brush with death. While it admittedly feels a bit unfocused, with that track on the other side, it’s hard to feel too ripped-off. “7th Dimension” is why one-sided singles exist — think of its minor b-side as a bonus track. [AR]
Dusk and Blackdown’s Keysound Recordings is another label to keep a sharp eye on in 2010. Their upcoming EP from LHF promises to be huge, going by their Keepers of the Light Vol 2 mix – gloriously off-kilter cosmic slop that somehow manages to live up to the “Sun Ra Arkestra tuning into Rinse FM” billing. If they can match that, we’re in for a treat. But that’s the future; right now there’s Sully, whose 2008 single “Phonebox” you need to grab quick smart, since it’s an impeccably wired piece of haunted future garage. This time around he’s remixing J Treole’s “The Loot” (which I admittedly haven’t heard, but based on this evidence I probably should). It’s ushered in on the back of mesmerized Middle-Eastern sounding strings, all stormy tension in the air before the beat drops, When it does, it immediately grows darker, hitting on a great swinging bass groove that he cools down with almost jazzy piano chords, like sounds floating from the doorways of bars as you stagger homeward. It’s “In Some Pattern” that’s the total headfuck though, beginning with these tight, crisp drums and mangled-tape fuckery before he brings in big sheet-ice chords that wipe across the track. The real hook here is the lovely plaintive melody; it runs barely three notes long and trails along behind those massive chords, this gorgeous grace note in amongst the merciless throb of the bass. I was walking to work when I first listened, and when that stoned tribal percussion breakdown hit mid-song, I ended up staggering along in a daze, completely blind-sided by its cavernous glow. Then when he tightens the drums back up and that haunting little melody floats free again, it’s pure bliss. Amazing track, and a great 12″ record. [SO]
Instra:mental’s original “No Future” was a fairly unremarkable track, sounding rather hesitant, a style that certainly didn’t mesh very well with the track’s post-apocalyptic undertones. Fortunately, Skream’s here to save the day: taking a hammer (or perhaps a chainsaw) to the original and turning everything way the fuck up, Skream embraces the apocalypse and brings firmly into the present. It starts with huge drums and an insistent female voice deadpanning “Lies! Confusion! Government! Control!” in a robotic monotone, like a detached voiceover in a sci-fi movie. If that weren’t cheesy enough, he fires up a positively crushing bass synth that immediately consumes the entire track. Move over Chase & Status, Skream has beaten you at your own game. The track’s absolutely ridiculous industrial-strength wobble feels like a joke — no one can possibly take this seriously. The bass writhes and twitches as if out of control — God knows what Skream is doing to the poor thing — and whatever is happening, it does not sound healthy.. The first instinct is to laugh; it sounds like a parody of less-acclaimed producers like Caspa or dubstep bandwagon-jumpers. The b-side, on the other hand, is one of Skream’s own tracks, surprisingly sparse and even gentle. There’s a distinct smoothed-out cymbal hit that sounds like a snowball hitting a wall and breaking apart, and he soft impact is disarming when you’re expecting a characteristically intense kick to the face. The track leans more towards the darker and quietly paranoid sound of early dubstep, a sound that’s easy to miss amidst all this post-dubstep psychedelia. This is a 12 that deals in contrasts, and as stupid as the first track is, it’s hard not to love at the same time; the bass is, if nothing else, impressive, and it’s easy to imagine people dancing to it — if they can keep their balance while it plays, anyway. [AR]
Starkey’s 2008 album Ephemeral Exhibits was one of the first releases that sold me on this whole dubstep thing beyond a few scattered releases. His palette thrilled me. Jangling-nerve synths and cluttery, splattery beats; it was so lurid and woozy and, well, fucking wonky. Yet it was the more melancholy tracks that I fell for hardest, particularly “Spacewalk” with those gaseous chords levitating the whole track, making the dust in the air glow like sparks. So when I first heard “Rain City” (on Dutch label Rwina) it was a revelation. There were those big, heaving synths grinding like tectonic plates but this time it felt more downcast, tinged with regret. It floats in interstellar synth wash, the whole dizzying swell sounding like the soundtrack to a robot romance, one standing forlorn and rusting in the rain as the other glides off into the darkness. “Beatingz” on the flip is all one glorious build, pulling together mangled threads and insistent beats. Layers of synth stack up higher and higher before the wheels come off and it skids downhill, throwing up sparks in this filthy, guttural groove. Turned up loud, it feels like it could crush your skull to powder. Taken together, the two tracks see Starkey moving in a bolder direction, bringing more structural elegance and more emotion into his tracks to undeniably stellar effect. On the heels of last year’s “OK Luv,” it bodes incredibly well for his second album due on the Mighty Mu later this year. [SO]
“Compass” / “Zahonda”
(Night Slugs | NSWL001) (r: Jan 2010 white label / Oct 2009 Sound Pellegrino) Purchase on Boomkat
L-Vis 1990 comes off of last year’s massive Night Slugs EP with his very own white label on Night Slugs (after last year’s digital EP on Sound Pellegrino), and his sound is more delicious than ever. These tracks — A-side “Compass” especially — have every thing you could possibly want in a goofy, funky dance track. Giddy, heavily-accented phrases, chopped-up female vocals, sirens, faux-choral vocals, massive synth pads, and irresistible drums. There’s even a rising chord progression that appears every once in a while to artificially build up tension — L-Vis 1990 clearly loves the feeling of release, so much so that he forces it again and again (and again!) in the same track. But despite having multiple climaxes, “Compass” is just like an entire night of dancing compressed into one track: satisfying, not merely exhausting. “Zahonda” is a mite calmer, more concerned with lavishing attention and detail on its slinky drums and rubbery bass than building a makeshift symphony of glee as on “Compass.” It occasionally reinforces its rhythm section with the wonkiest of malfunctioning synths, only adding to the bizarre wackiness that pervades every groove of this 12. The forced-climax gimmick is replicated on “Zahonda”, which begs the question: is L-Vis 1990 is a one-trick pony, blissfully oblivious, or just simply stupid? Does it really matter when he’s pumping out gloriously tacky stuff like “Compass” in the first place? [AR]
The fantastic French wonknologist Debruit has been on my radar for a while, particularly after last year’s Cle De Bras EP, which featured the truly enormous Kwaito derivation of “Congo Whoomp.” This new EP sees him travelling in a similar direction, rewiring African music with drunken beats and malfunctioning synthesizer. Opening track “K.O. Debout” manages to splice choppy likembé with vocodered R&B gibberish and make it sound completely fucked up and absolutely perfect at the same time. It’s Konono No. 1 with a #1 club hit and it staggers and swaggers with more panache than seems legal. “Persian Funk” comes on like Omar Souleyman after way too many, snakecharmed riffs stuttering over lurching beats before what passes for a chorus gets AutoTuned into soup. Next up, “149 Dalston Airline” is blissful Afrosoul fed through a blender, with flapping sheets of synth and intricate hand percussion. But it’s “Nigeria What?” that takes the prize, driven by jumpy snippets of that lovely laser-beam highlife guitar and then tipping head over heels into this yawning chasm of bass. This is wild, fearless stuff; proof that it’s at all these little intersections between genres where the most amazing music is happening. This won’t sound like much you’ve ever heard before, but you’ll wish there was more of it. [SO]
If you’re a producer or label and have tracks you would like to submit for consideration for the column, e-mail Andrew Ryce.