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Sonic Router 006 - A Dubstep Column For October
The Quietus , September 30th, 2009 08:41

Oli Marlow looks forward to the month ahead in bass heavy dubstep

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It’s become somewhat obligatory that to begin a Sonic Router contribution to The Quietus I have to roll out a tentative mention of the weather and/or a bodily function it causes me, and then somehow, impossibly, equate it to dubstep. But the end of September seems to mark the more pressing dawn of an exciting period for music eclipsing the glee the sun’s casual presence each morning is having on me.

We’ve albums aplenty, with Kryptic Mind’s debut dubstep opus, One Of Us, bountifully exploring the possibilities of shadow-drenched halfstep, pulling atmosphere out of sampled car doors and walked-on gravel, joining the likes of Elemental and DFRNT in the September-October long player arena. That said, with these complete bodies of work sitting before me, neatly checked and arranged in my new, overly complex digital filing system, this month I’ve been compelled to write this whole column by a single song; a certain kaleidoscopic refix of Untold’s ‘Stop What You’re Doing'.

Just to contextualize this a bit, for me, the importance of a newcomer who comes complete with fresh ideas, like Mount Kimbie in today’s dubstep landscape is immensely profound. An act, such as they, that fuse such bold strokes and simple seemingly fluorescent ideas in a field of sonic greyscale and all too forceful low end, have been welcomed with open arms; and their menagerie of approaches do truly deserve the rapturous reception that their first two Hotflush released EPs have received. If however you get to see them live you’ll see three figures crouched over the array of button boxes and technology, rather than the well publicised duo that people like me write about almost bi-weekly. The third, slightly looming figure, is that of James Blake.

His first single to hit wax, ‘Air and Lack Thereof', caught the ear of Untold (after Distance played it on his Rinse.fm show’s new producer section), who duly signed it up to his emerging Hemlock label, feeling that the detached synthesis of Blake’s productions fitted with his own dance floor leaning bastard style and concurrently that of his label. Considering Blake hails from a more ‘traditional’ musical education it’s not in the least bit surprising that his tunes share both a keen ear for composition as well as the bass weight necessary to pull impact in the dance.

“I started playing the piano and singing when I was six. I went through the piano grades, which I didn’t really appreciate at the time but now I know was invaluable,” Blake considers. “I heard some Digital Mystikz stuff at FWD about 6 months before I started Uni, and that was it really… Before I started producing there was always a feeling at the back of my mind that I needed to document what I was doing musically. It started off with me imitating what I was hearing at FWD, but eventually my other influences started coming through in my productions.”

“Maybe it’s because I didn’t really grow up with electronic music around me, rather I listened to a lot of classical/jazz solo piano, Sly and The Family Stone, D’angelo and Stevie Wonder…” he muses. “I would say I took a sort of melodic sensibility from those musicians. I went through a phase of writing very minimal things for the sake of being minimal and dark, and it just wasn’t me at all. As soon as I started letting the melodic elements come through I started having a lot more fun.”

And when you talk to Blake about his music, in particular his recent and harrowing reconstruction of Untold’s broken thumper ‘Stop What You’re Doing’, it’s this ‘fun’ element he gets most animated at. His expression changes from pseudo-serious to a knowing sideways smile when I throw my limbs around in front of him mimicking the bassline’s regimented pulse and those furrowing synthesizers as they ascend the scales before blossoming into a short crescendo of jazzy g-funk.

“I think Untold is probably the most influential producer in dubstep/electronic at the moment,” he states confidently. “Even if you were unlucky enough not to like his sound, you’d still be impacted by his style and attitude to production. He manages to have an audible amount of fun with his music, and still manages to structure it all into dancefloor friendly stuff. It’s really clever, but it doesn’t push some sort of intelligent-music thing on you, it’s just naturally innovative and incredibly good to dance to.”

“I listened to ‘Stop What You’re Doing,’ and once I’d got over how defiant and cheeky it is, I was really intrigued by the bass line’s persistent melody I just felt I could harmonize the melody, and completely recontextualise it, but as it got rowdier and rowdier it slowly dawned on me that maybe going full on with it was the only way I could make it worthy of the original track,” he beams. “It really is about having fun though, once the ideas were there. I remember writing it and jumping around!”

I’ve written before about Untold’s ability to stop a dance floor in its tracks, simultaneously causing the audience to cock their heads sideways, lending their good ear to the nearest speaker, with a puzzled look of curiosity splashed over their faces in bemusement; before the drop comes and makes sense of it all. Well, James Blake has kept all of that power but incubated it, sprawling his distinctive talent for splaying melody apart and layering it in a way that doesn’t alienate the casual listener. It’s got the slow atmospheric intro that tinkles and see-saws past hyper delayed vocals. It’s got the primed and charged build up that brings the sense of anticipation and it’s got the ridiculous drop, that hinges on that moments silence; that deadening and 80Hz extension of the kick drum that comes before the track explodes into technicolor as the different pitches of the melody lines erupt together in symphony. It’s a technique Blake has knowingly used before…

“Take the second drop in ‘Sparing the Horses’” he rationalises, “You’ve got a couple of blips (which were actually mistakes from playing the synth in live, which I left in) that make you forget the rhythm of what you’re listening to, so when it comes back in it’s got real impact. I suppose I do use a lot of silence, and I like bringing in/dropping out white noise to accentuate certain things and mark those silences even more effectively. I just think you don’t appreciate the beauty of some sounds until you forget their context for a few seconds...”

For me this is what Blake’s recent production work has done beautifully. It stands out from the crowd and marks its entrance into the mix emphatically, signaling its presence with snatched riffs and tumbling time signatures that fuse gorgeously with the current glut of pitch bent strains of mutated garage.

Words: Oli Marlow for http://sonicrouter.blogspot.com

Blake’s ‘Stop What You’re Doing’ remix joins Pangaea’s reworking of Untold’s ‘‘I Can’t Stop This Feeling’ on a 10” destined for shops shortly on Hemlock Recordings.

‘Air and Lack Thereof’ b/w ‘ ‘Sparing With Horses’ is out now, also on Hemlock.

Most of the releases mentioned will be available physically as well as digitally. Check your local record shops or online stores for more details. We buy music and recommend you do too. Information on all these artists and more can be found at dubstepforum.com

hog
Feb 24, 2010 3:38pm

Blake's upcoming release for Hessle is one of the most incredible things I've heard for ages.

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