, January 13th, 2012 09:19
For all that dubstep's essentially become the dominant worldwide club concern over the past couple of years, fabric's mix CD series has slightly shied away from featuring it too prominently. Even the dubstep-related producers and DJs they've enlisted to contribute have avoided straight-up dubstep sets, instead skirting slightly around the genre's margins: Martyn and Pearson Sound's respective CDs, which gave at least as much airtime to broken house variations now lumped under 'UK bass'; the polyrhythmic techno of Shackleton, who was always at best a genre outlier anyway. You'd have to cast backward to the heady days of 2007, and Caspa & Rusko's commercial dubstep missive Fabriclive.37, for a full CD's worth. That's probably partly down to the fact that the genre already has a well-established mix CD series - Tempa's great and very comprehensive Dubstep Allstars range. But on a more general level, it's due to its volatile tendency to remain in a constant state of flux. Like many UK dance genres, as soon as it's become one thing it's immediately taking several rapid strides towards another, making it difficult for a compilation to feel like anything more than a snapshot of a single moment in time.
With Fabriclive.61 Pinch, one of the longer running proponents of the genre and head of Bristol's Tectonic label, offers one such snapshot. Producer of the impeccable Underwater Dancehall album (a genre classic that leaned heavily on the 'dub' side of the fence, right down to offering separate vocal and instrumental CDs), Rob Ellis is often considered something of a purist - in as much as he's continued to focus on ocean-deep 140bpm brain/body music, long after most have departed for entirely slower and housier shores. The last twelve months or so, though, have found him slightly loosening his grip on the typical notion of 'pure' dubstep. His stunning collaborative album with Shackleton last November was more fluid than anything either producer had done before. And after signing to Loefah's Swamp81 label, he dropped tempo significantly for 2010's ace and appropriately titled 'Croydon House', a stompy evocation of that borough's mind-numbing semi-urban sprawl. The same was true of the even better 'Retribution', which didn't so much address the genre quandary as disregard it entirely. Roughly packing every inch of space with a viscous cement mix of static and distortion, it remained focused on the dread pressure of early dubstep and, unlike a lot of very thin-sounding post-dubstep music, lacked none of its power and intensity.
It's that same skill, translated to selection, sequencing and mixing, that makes the opening half-hour of Fabriclive.61 so remarkable. Much of dubstep-derived UK club music currently feels thin and lacking in much of its parent genre's weight - the result, partly, of dropping tempos by 15-odd bpm without giving due consideration to the extra space opened up within the music's structure. Despite running at house tempo (something he gave a tongue in cheek nod to in the title of a recent promo mix entitled 'Oh No Not Another Dubstep DJ Playing House Music') the opening section to Pinch's mix could hardly be accused of that. Instead he's opted for tracks by producers who keep the sense of dread and urban tension ratcheted to the highest setting: Tectonic's Distal, whose 'Venom (Part 2)' opens the mix; F; Deleted Scenes; Joy Orbison & Boddika's (admittedly overplayed) depth charge electro banger 'Swims'. In combination with some very clever mixing - allowing Shed's 'EQD005B' to drift into view over several long minutes, for example - the result retains dubstep's urgency and pressure while switching up dancers' limbs into new modes of motion.
Pinch's own contributions to this early section are particularly impressive, and his remix of Henry & Louis' 'Love Like' is one of the highlights of the CD. A distant cousin of something Rhythm & Sound might have released, but stripped of any extraneous sound (R&S's static cloak conspicuously absent), it's regularly destabilised by great volcanic belches of sub-bass that tear upward through the mix. Ellis' music has always had force to rival halfstep maestro Loefah (check out early track 'Punisher' for evidence), but here it's become so dense as to exert its own gravitational pull on the music around it - when Shackleton collaboration 'Rooms Within A Room' begins to emerge four minutes through, you can hear it audibly straining to pull free of the deadly undertow. By way of contrast, Quest collaboration 'In Dreams' is a lightfooted delight - dropping the metronomic kickdrum, its skippy percussion plays a coy game of tag with raindrop synth pinpricks and bubbly sub.
Ellis uses former Vex'd man Roly Porter's gorgeous beatless 'Hessra' as a segue between the first section and the more straight-up dubstep of the mix's second half (a neat thematic link between older dubstep and the sound's more flexible future). Despite the rapid tempo change, none of the preceding segment's momentum gets lost in the shift, as 140bpm lurches into view with Pinch & Photek's 'Acid Reign'. It perhaps lacks something of the sheer excellence of the disc's first half, but then that's hardly its fault - it would be tough for anything to follow such a bruising opening salvo. Roska's brilliantly bouncy '480 BC' adds UK funky's syncopated swing to the framework, with bristling results, and towards the end of the mix a pair of jagged electro steppers from Jakes and OM Unit steadily magnify the intensity until the entire thing simply collapses into a slight return from Distal's 'Venom', ending the experience where it started.
As always, it's hard not to beg the question of exactly why we need mix CDs anymore, such is the glut of free mixed music available online. While Pinch's mix doesn't bother to attempt to provide an answer, it doesn't have to: I suspect that you'll be unlikely to come across a better mixed and more punchy summary of current underground dubstep this year. But beyond that, the most important thing about this CD is that it poses very pertinent questions of a genre Hyperdub boss Kode9 apparently once described as encompassing anything with lots of sub-bass at 140bpm. The first half of Fabriclive.61 might have dropped to 125bpm but it certainly isn't house or techno. With boundaries relaxing across the board, here Ellis offers evidence of how far it's possible to push an aesthetic without sacrificing any of its essence. It's something fellow producers, DJs and listeners would do well to bear in mind.