, November 27th, 2012 06:26
Dance music has a tendency to mutate so fast that five years can seem like a lifetime. Even so, the last few years have felt especially fecund, with new producers proliferating like so many studio-pale mushrooms. Their hybrids and offshoots of techno, house and dubstep are by now nestling together fairly comfortably under the umbrella term of 'bass music', a nebulous title that’s stuck purely for want of a better one. Yet the term falls short of what it purports to describe, representing less a genre and more a number of exciting developments in electronic music – one that few labels have come to encapsulate more than Hemlock Recordings.
For Chapter One, a mix CD and three-part 12" series to mark Hemlockʼs five-year anniversary, label co-founder Untold (aka Jack Dunning) spins the last few years of bass music into a compelling narrative. Much more than a mix, Chapter One feels like a microcosm of the last few years' of UK dancefloor history, defining the thematic core that unites artists as ostensibly different as James Blake and Pangaea, or Falty DL and Nautiluss. A permeating undercurrent of darkness, an outsider status only hinted at, makes Chapter One a coherent, accomplished release. The mix encompasses traces of dark techno, strains of house, and smatterings of two-step and even drum & bass, but it’s to Dunning’s credit as both label boss and selector that it never feels like a straightforward "best-of" compilation.
The first of Chapter One’s three rough segments comprises tracks whose now-classic status is testament to Hemlock’s pivotal role in sculpting the UK's dancefloor aesthetic in recent years. The percussive funk of Fantastic Mr Fox & Rich Reason's ‘Plimsoul’ and LV’s remix of Mount Kimbie’s ‘Beacon’ gives way to the duskier tones of James Blake’s ‘Air and Lack Thereof’, all jittery kickdrums and pitchbent vocal samples. Blake further ratchets up the darkness with a remix of Untold’s ‘Stop What You’re Doing’, stacking demented organs, throbbing synths and Stygian vocals in a frantic, wild-eyed swell. Itʼs an uncompromising track whose inclusion in the compilation provides an essential blast of raw intensity and sinister drama, a welcome reminder that Hemlockʼs history has been as much about those traits as it is the subtlety and economy of tracks like Untoldʼs appropriately named ʻDisciplineʼ.
The central section of the album is its most interesting, consisting as it does of previously unreleased cuts that denote Hemlock’s – and by extension an entire segment of the UK scene’s – future direction. Away from the rigid constraints of generic demarcation, producers are happily borrowing tropes and tendencies from both techno and house without enslaving themselves to either. As a result, one aspect of Chapter One is a redefinition of 4/4 music. Sei A and Guy Andrews’s contributions to the compilation are dynamic, anthemic tracks that signify an inspiring future for refined house-leaning music led by intricate percussion and chiselled grooves, while the restless, explosive drum patterns of Ramadanman’s ‘Tempest’ have a strong affinity with techno.
The mixʼs non-CD exclusives provide a glimpse into Hemlockʼs myriad future avenues, and underline Dunningʼs refusal to allow its output to fall into a lazy pigeonhole. Kowton also takes on ʻStop What Youʼre Doingʼ; unlike the urgent, simultaneously peaking layers of Blakeʼs version, his remix instead generates intensity through use of uninhabited space and fierce, metallic percussion. Counteracting the darkness is Joeʼs ʻR. E. J. Bitʼ – a rather lovely melodic house track, all sunny chords and splashy hats – and the irresistible grooves of Nautilussʼs slow- burning house take on Untoldʼs ʻBreatheʼ.
As these newer cuts reveal a growing closeness to classic techno and house, the final section of the Chapter One mix delves into sounds informed by drum & bass, a genre that at the moment feels pretty creatively exhausted, but has made an indelible imprint on the psyche of today’s rising producers. The standout track of part three is Joe’s ‘Studio Power On’, the sound of a jungle track being chewed up, spat out and shattered by a ferocious beast let loose in the studio. Rather than a nostalgic look back at some mythic golden age of drum & bass, these tracks instead pay homage to the blistering rhythmic intricacy of its earlier incarnations, whose influence on todayʼs dance music is audible everywhere.
Chapter One’s journey is expansive and in many ways a victory lap – a justified one, considering Hemlock’s achievements in such a short time. That the mix’s opening tracks sound fresh, and that the whole selection is coherent throughout, is an impressive feat. Bandwagons are easily boarded, but Dunning clearly has a keen ear for enduring sounds, and though his label ended up inextricably wound up with a scene, Chapter One illustrates how to transcend the vagaries of hype. This is no wistful retrospective, but both the assertion of a profound legacy and a measured guide through an ongoing phase in UK dance musicʼs evolution.