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Hessle Audio
116 & Rising (compilation) Rory Gibb , May 16th, 2011 12:07

Since mid-last year it’s been getting harder to ignore the fact that, for all its productivity and apparent vitality, the scene surrounding what once was called dubstep, and now cheerfully makes its home amongst any number of awful and reductive descriptors, is somewhat lacking in focus. That’s perhaps an inevitable consequence of the sound gradually creeping into wider consciousness, and its differentiation into any number of variants that take their parent genres as starting points from which to explore. It’s not that there isn’t great music still being made; more that the signal to noise ratio is becoming increasingly skewed, making it harder to uncover gems from amidst the mess of static interference.

Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark’s recent piece on 130bpm bass sounds for Pitchfork sums up today’s disparate state well, again emphasising the widely-held notion that we’re in the middle of another transitional state between defined sounds. Currently we’re experiencing a period of high mutation where any number of new variants are emerging, being passed through the testing process of a dancefloor, and managing to spread throughout the population if they survive (an organic and unconscious process of natural selection that holds true to dance music’s status as a fundamentally evolutionary entity).

A good example of that process has been the steady emergence of heavy, electro-influenced drum programming throughout London’s dancefloors, spearheaded largely by Loefah’s Swamp81 label, which has become something of a bastion for the sound. That entire development has essentially been the product of a few well-placed tracks from early last year, chief among them Addison Groove’s ubiquitous anthem ‘Footcrab’ (which introduced the bass world to vogue-ish referencing of Chicago juke) and Hessle Audio co-head David Kennedy’s spasmodic ‘Work Them’, under his Ramadanman guise. Once their ruthless, brilliant efficiency on a dancefloor had been proven beyond any reasonable doubt, their jittery 808 sounds swiftly began to make themselves felt within other producers’ music, and proceeded to spread outward.

D1’s lost dub ‘Subzero’ is one of the most striking tracks on Hessle Audio’s 116 & Rising compilation, precisely because it preceded this current drum machiney state of affairs by several years (one of the reasons for its inclusion, according to label co-head Ben Thomson). Driven by little other than whipcrack snare-hat collisions and blankly staring pulses of sub-bass, it’s as frosty, alienating and utterly brilliant as anything that’s emerged from UK dance music in the last decade. Encoded in its minimalist take on percussion and clinically precise bass are the genes that would come to be fully expressed in Kennedy’s productions as Ramadanman and Pearson Sound – a fact emphasised by its presence on the same compilation as the latter’s quite spectacular ‘Stifle’, which imagines the same set of elements as subject to natural processes of decay. And, tellingly, it’s the only track on the record’s first disc, consisting entirely of new material, which could legitimately be described as ‘dubstep’. Sure, everything here is steeped in its influence – focus on space and atmosphere above obvious dancefloor trickery; ghosts of skanking halfstep beats flitting into audible range before submerging again – but the label’s music has evolved, just as the scene itself has.

One way of remaining locked on track over the last couple of years, as dubstep in its earlier forms has sunk beneath the radar again to be replaced by a mass of Chimera-like hybrids, has been to follow specific labels. Over the last twelve months or so, both Loefah’s Swamp81 and Oneman’s 502 Recordings have defined/dictated the movements of the dancefloor better than most (including the hyped but patchy Night Slugs), and Hyperdub has remained a staple, reliably diverse in its output. But what’s so distinct about Hessle Audio is the unusual level of focus and consistency it’s shown since its birth in 2007, to the extent that it’s established something of a unique aesthetic. 116 & Rising’s second disc offers proof: it’s devoted to an exploration of the label’s back catalogue, and across twelve tracks provides compelling evidence to support that argument. Paired with the first CD, which consists of brand new material from everyone who’s been involved so far plus a couple of close associates, 116 & Rising works not only as a document of the past but also as a map of the imprint’s current topography.

Hessle tracks are generally stripped back to leave the fewest possible elements, resulting in an emphasis on rhythm over melody, itself often either implicit or delivered in muted shades. Across the label’s lifetime, the most obvious shift has been the creeping influence of house music, likely linked to Thomson’s and Kennedy’s endless crate-digging for DJ sets and the Rinse FM Hessle show. So while the second disc’s beats remain firmly fixed within dubstep’s zone of influence, the tracks on the first disc have almost exclusively slowed down and opened up, allowing that characteristic percussive sound more space to breathe.

Kennedy’s own tracks are the most obvious examples of that development, but even then it’s possible to hear in his earlier incarnations clues as to what would develop later. Lacking the dramatic breakdowns that have come to typify his recent music, ‘Blimey’ retains the same essential character but is far busier, built of stacked woodblock percussion and smokelike wisps of melody; last year’s ‘Don’t Change For Me’ is busier still, sending junglist breaks flying back and forth across a silken backdrop. The contrast with ‘Stifle’, his new contribution to the first disc, couldn’t be greater. Like much of his recent Pearson Sound material it takes a reductionist approach to composition, drums and bass locked to a vocal that gradually distends into dissonance. But it’s his finest track to date, simply by virtue of its extreme subtlety: eschewing the high drama of other recent tracks, it gradually dissolves to nothing in an acid wash of greyscale synth. Its stately death recalls the analogue corrosion of Basinski’s Disintegration Loops and the choking sadness of Leyland Kirby, but reconfigured as the loneliest dancefloor banger you’re ever likely to encounter. ‘Stifle’ is an appropriate name.

Joe and Blawan work with a similar palette, refining it to an artform; both are drummers, a fact immediately evident in the brute rhythmic force that defines the latter’s tracks. Joe’s are more subtle; the syncopated Rhodes chords of ‘Rut’ lend it an almost pastoral mood, and new track ‘Twice’ takes over three minutes to build before a cheeky film sample and staggered piano sends it into cosmic jazz overdrive. As relatively recent recruits to the label neither have shown any major shifts in approach, though the overarching trend is again one of paring away, of removing any extraneous matter (Blawan’s ‘Fram’, for example, brims with activity in the shadows; in ‘Potchla Vee’ nothing even casts a shadow). Elgato’s ‘Music (Body Mix)’ works the same aesthetic at eerily low tempo. And Punch Drunk label boss Peverelist, who recently released his finest tracks to date on Hessle, contributes his starkest track to date in ‘Sun Dance’, which distils the essence of jungle into a single six-minute drone.

It would be all too easy to go into far more detail about each track on the first disc, when extra really isn’t necessary: what makes 116 & Rising such an essential compilation is that it doesn’t feel like a compilation. While there are plenty of differences between individual producers (case in point: Untold’s grime-meets-piano-house sitting pretty on the same disc as James Blake’s submerged soul), a shared attitude and approach results in an unusually coherent listen. Not content with amassing the finest back catalogue of any imprint to emerge from the dubstep fray, its curators – Thomson, Kennedy and Kev McAuley (whose productions as Pangaea have provided some of Hessle’s most memorable moments, including the bump ‘n’ grind vocal ‘step of ‘Why’ and the ravey new ‘Run Out’) – have gone onto assemble one of the finest compilations of UK-borne electronic music these ears have ever encountered. That’s admittedly hardly surprising, given the label’s trajectory thus far, but it’s deeply satisfying nonetheless. While it may simply be the result of a ‘three heads are better than one’ situation – the trio are well-known for deliberating carefully before deciding to release anything – Hessle has (perhaps inadvertently) ended up as a pioneering force in UK music, and continues to emit an ever-stronger signal amid increasingly noisy surroundings. The fact that it’s all happened with a minimum of hype from their end simply serves to make the final result even more enjoyable.