This month in Subdetritus we take a snapshot of where things are at in the world of bass music right now. While we are all huddling around heaters, it’s the height of the northern hemisphere’s summer and much of the scene’s big hitters are out on the road peddling their sounds at festivals and clubs the world over.
James Blake took on the Park Stage at Glastonbury last month to rave reviews fuelling anticipation of his imminent Australian tour. The electronic music Mecca that is Sonar Festival descended on Barcelona the week before Glastonbury with a bass line-up only dreams are made of. From many friends of mine who were there, it seemed there was almost too much good music to absorb. While the more pop-leaning bass acts like dubstep supergroup Magnetic Man, Katy B and Zinc reportedly sounded pretty dull and uninspired, there were astounding sets turned in by the likes of Aphex Twin, Downliners Sekt, Raime, Teebs, oOoOO, Buraka Som Sistema, Shackleton and Illum Sphere.
Radio queen and bass champion Mary Anne Hobbs played a 2:30am set to an estimated crowd of 15,000 people at Sonar and backed it up by a sunrise set to 20,000 at Benicassim Festival last weekend. Hobbs has a lot to be happy about at the moment with her much lauded return to radio two weeks ago on Xfm. While her BBC Radio 1 Experimental show (a favourite of this column for years) was in a mid-week timeslot in the wee hours of the morning, her new show on Xfm is a primetime 7-10pm slot on Saturdays. “This is such a victory,” Hobbs said in a press release. “Not just for me, but for all the artists I believe in and all the live listeners who care so deeply. My aim… to create some truly mind-blowing, redefining radio on Xfm.” Her first show featured guest mixes from Deep Medi Musik’s Silkie and LuckyMe’s Machinedrum, while last week featured mixes from Ninja Tune’s Daedelus and Planet Mu’s Falty DL. Highly recommended if you’re hungry for fresh underground bass music.
Speaking of which there have been plenty of new releases to heat up those speakers this winter. Zomby has just dropped his second album Dedication for indie label 4AD which builds on the woozy, synth-heavy Nintendo-step of his highly regarded early releases for labels like Hyperdub, Ramp and Werk. Zomby is an artist who has always operated outside of the status quo and while this album is relatively short, it contains so many great moments and ideas. The latest transmission from Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder collective is the proper debut album from Samiyam. While the LA-centric “wonky” hip hop sound is starting to sound tired in the hands of many, Sam Baker’s Album possesses a funk and fidgetiness that sounds more exciting than most of the woozy, bass-heavy Dilla knock-offs making the rounds. Following two self-released CDRs, recent visitor Pursuit Grooves has also released her debut album Frantically Hopeful. Interestingly released on the Bristol-based label Tectonic run by Pinch, the record is an eclectic listen still firmly rooted in future soul with a definite Dam-Funk vibe that flirts a little with pop music in a good way. Other hotly anticipated bass music releases on the horizon include the new full-length from Ras G on Ramp and the new EP from Scotland’s Hudson Mohawke on Warp Records.
On the Brisbane tip, it would be remiss of me not to mention local duo Science Project who seem unstoppable at the moment with upcoming shows in Melbourne and a support slot for Los Angeles-based Nosaj Thing this week. Their deep love of dub and reggae has been the focus of a couple of beat tapes that are available on their Bandcamp page – one a tribute to Bob Marley and the other to Osbourne Ruddock (a.k.a. King Tubby). The beat tapes feature versions by the boys themselves and locals such as Erther, Syntax, Walrii and Puzahki.
Electronic music purveyors have long recognised that watching someone on a dark stage twiddling knobs or mixing records isn’t the most thrilling concert-going experience visually. Over the years electronic acts have deployed light shows, lasers and projected visuals to accompany and compliment the music in a live setting. This month in Subdetritus we look at bass music’s dichotomous relationship with live visual stimulus and it’s relationship with multimedia art at large.
From the earliest days of rave culture back in the late-eighties, parties were something of a visual spectacle – ravers dressed in fluorescent colours, warehouse spaces decked-out in UV décor, strobes, lasers and all manner of mind-altering lighting displays. This wasn’t necessarily the blueprint that all electronic music parties followed in subsequent years, particularly bass and sound system culture. Many drum’n’bass and dubstep parties were, and continue to be, very conscious of a certain “hoods up, heads down” mentality towards the music and how it should be enjoyed in a live setting. One of the most famous of the original dubstep parties – Mala, Loefah and Coki’s mighty DMZ night in Brixton – would pride itself on being no more than a dark room with one sparse blue light and the mother of all sound systems. No flashy visuals or strobe lights, just: “Come meditate on bass weight”.
This has been a staple of many bass gigs around the globe: spare no expense on the sound system and the rest should be simple and raw. It’s a cry back to original Jamaican sound systems and a statement that the music itself should be the primary focus. It was an ethos that one-time smoked-out jazzy junglist turned innovative sound artist Amon Tobin employed on his 2007 tour of Europe supporting his album The Foley Room. “Fuck visuals,” he was famously quoted as saying. “We’re sinking every last penny into the sound system!” And from all accounts he wasn’t fronting – the music was loud, bass-heavy, crystal clear, in your face and inescapable. Fast forward to the last few weeks, and Amon Tobin has just kicked off his latest tour in support of brand new album Isam. The album itself has received mixed reviews as Tobin continues to push his challenging sound manipulations into new and less familiar territory, but in an interesting flip, the live show he has assembled for this record could go down in history as one of the most unique multimedia performances of our time.
The first show of the tour was in Montreal on June 1st and is currently being staged in select cities across Europe. Videos have since been uploaded to www.amontobin.com of the performance and its design, and scores more have surfaced from fans on YouTube. Described in a press release as featuring a “stunning 25′ x 14′ x 8′ multi-dimensional/ shape shifting 3-D art installation surrounding Tobin and enveloping him and the audience in a beyond 3-D experience”, the footage has to be seen to be believed. The marriage of his dense electronic compositions with such a jaw-dropping visual accompaniment is light years ahead of its time and makes his contemporaries who seek to offset the visual boredom of DJ sets by wearing giant mouse heads look frankly ridiculous. On top of all of this, Tobin teamed up with respected artist Tessa Farmer whose unique visual style based on reconstructions of organic material has been the centerpiece of an art installation that has been on display in galleries in London and Paris to coincide with the launch of the album.
Flying Lotus is another that has been pushing the visual element harder than most in terms of cover art, live performances, interactive web applications and film clips. There are plenty of others in bass music who are embracing other media in an attempt to compliment and enhance the sensory experience of their music, including crews here in Brisbane. The future looks bright and flashy in the murky world of bass.
Los Angeles-based Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus) has finally lifted the lid on what has been the most anticipated electronic album of the year. His subtle yet wild productions have always been filtered through the psychedelic heritage of the West Coast and the legacy of J Dilla’s unquantized beat-making, but here he has finally crashed through into a world all of his own. Cosmogramma is the fulfillment of Ellison’s unique musical vision, which in turn consolidates his already unmistakable aesthetic while pushing the boundaries of his kaleidoscopic sonic palette even further.
It is no longer adequate to describe FlyLo beats as post-Dilla or wonky. The amazing tones on the album owe as much to the likes of Madlib as they do Four Tet, Aphex Twin, Kode9, Motown, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman. Jazz in particular hangs thickly over the album, and while Ellison often plays down his family lineage (his aunt was the great Alice Coltrane, wife of legendary saxophonist John) the composition and experimentation feels like a futuristic take on the spirit of 1960’s free jazz. Cosmogramma sounds completely familiar and alien all at once. For every squeak, bleep, squelch or manipulated sample there is an overriding sense of analogue warmth and melodic soulfulness whose juxtaposition doesn’t quite make sense at first. Like free jazz, it’s a challenging listen and the individual compositions on Cosmogramma make most sense in the context of the overall album.
As such, it’s difficult to pick obvious highlights. ‘…And The World Laughs With You’ features the vocals of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke which are tweaked in such a way to provide just another layer to the track as opposed to the feature of it. Live instrumentation and string arrangements are used heavily on the record including relative Ravi Coltrane who lends sax to ‘Arkestry’ and Dorian Concept who plays keys on ‘Satelllliiiiiiiteee’.
Also worthy of mention is the gorgeous sleeve artwork, incorporating the theme of old-meets-new with hieroglyphic-like symbols and sketches of planets. As a package, Cosmogramma looks and feels timeless – a work that will be enjoyed for generations to come. Only time will tell, but on repeated listening one can’t shake the feeling that this is a very important album.
Here is the May edition of my column Subdetritus published in Time Off magazine in their May 5th, 2010 issue. Hope you dig it…
Do you have records in your collection that you are afraid to play late at night on your own? Records that are moody, harrowing, grim and downright evil? I have long been interested in the legacy of dark dance music and lately I’ve been thinking about it in terms of dubstep and the bass movement. People may argue on the exact definition of what constitutes dark music, but there is no escaping the fact that a lot of the releases in the formative years of dubstep were pitch-black and moody as hell.
The 2005 album Degenerate by Vex’d dragged 2-step down into the murky depths with sawtooth bass and Bladerunner samples. Around the same time Digital Mystikz releases like ‘Misty Winter’ were examples of atmospheric midnight dub. A year or two later Distance released My Demons – an album of menace that juxtaposed eerie minimal half-step with gritty synths that chugged like heavy metal guitars. And of course there was Burial, whose fractured soundscapes and haunting samples perfectly caught the desolation and loneliness of the darkest time of night just before the dawn.
This brooding pot of bass and mood we now know as dubstep was unique and seemed to point down a menacing yet exciting road. Sitting at around 70bpm, half-step is one of the slowest genres of dance music there is and seemed to lend itself perfectly to dense atmospherics and subtle experiments in bass. This was no hands-in-the-air, glowstick-brandishing rave music. This was something else that appealed just as much to my hip hop and electronic music friends as it did my metal, punk and hardcore friends. As the mighty DMZ club night’s mail out used to read, “Come meditate on bass weight.” But very quickly, the genre stepped out from the shady corner of a dark alley.
There are two ways to look at the global explosion of dubstep and both have their merit. The adoption of the style by outside DJs, producers and heads led to the diversification of the sound. The fusion of dubstep with a multitude of different styles gave the music exposure and facilitated the birth of the many different sub-genres we enjoy today. And while funky (essentially a fusion of dubstep bass and percussion with house music) dominates the scene in the UK right now, aesthetically it couldn’t be any further removed from the aforementioned hoods-up, heads-down dubstep of a few years ago.
So the other side of the coin is homogenization. One way of looking at it is that the music and its surrounding scene have been made safe – watered-down. Promoters want to sell tickets, labels want to sell records, clubs want to sell alcohol, and young clubbers want to dance. Nobody wants to be scared off by slow, gloomy beats with shadowy atmosphere and claustrophobic bass. So the music evolves. Of course, this trend is not new. Dubstep’s older cousin drum’n’bass is more than familiar with this tale. Be it due to commercialization or change in tastes, the road from Photek to Pendulum is a well-worn one.
This is not a nostalgia trip. There is still incredible dubstep being made in the dark, old-school vein even if you do have to dig much deeper to find it. At least you will always be able to put the needle on that nightmarish record in your bedroom at 3am and scare the shit out of yourself.