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Keepers Of The Light Angus Finlayson , April 19th, 2012 09:27

Dubstep is dead. That is, in the original sense of the word. What’s left are distant descendants clinging to the same semantic veneer, or else watered down rip-offs trading on an ugly rhetoric of “purity” and “authenticity”. All the more surprising, then, that Blackdown’s Keysound label has just released one of the best dubstep albums in years. In the original sense of the word, I mean.  

The LHF crew have been treated a bit like one of the genre’s revered heritage acts since they first surfaced on the label in 2010. Interviews are scarce, and the ones you can find are laced with the kind of quasi-mystical language usually reserved for Burial. The parallels certainly bear discussing: both thrive on anonymity and the withholding of information. Both are sheltered by mentor figures whose influence serves to shape a large amount of the discourse around them (Kode9 for Burial, Martin Clark for LHF). And both are deeply enthralled with the mythos of the hardcore continuum - the evolutionary lineage that's run through the UK's dance music history - treading its vast and hallowed halls like reverent children in an ancient library. 

OK, children is a bit harsh. But with Keepers Of The Light - swathed as it is in dewy eyed pirate radio romanticism - it’s difficult not to get the sense of the HC as a colossal, labyrinthine canon, a cultural tapestry of incomparable richness that ought to be referred to in hushed tones. That phrase too, “Keepers Of The Light” - it’s an epithet that’s hung around the crew for a while. What light does it refer to? The light of the ‘nuum? Some more nebulous musical quality? Or something altogether more mystical? As a collective, LHF seem to whet the speculative whistles of listeners and journalists alike with unique skill. 

At points, this can tip over into self-parody. A sampled monologue in ‘Rush’ by Double Helix and Low Density Matter (productions from four of the seven-strong crew appear here) proclaims, “tonight you are going to hear music you’ve never heard before”: either a crushingly mundane truism, given that the majority of material on this album is previously unreleased, or else a gratingly hubristic statement that will make you positively want to find this music derivative. Elsewhere, sampled snatches of speech swing between the brilliantly appropriate (Sun Ra’s “we work on the other side of time” in ‘From Whence We Came’) and the cliched-going-on-vapid (the Kill Bill dialogue in ‘Blue Steel’, the pulpy metaphysics of ‘Questions’). There’s also the requisite number of rasta proclamations, of course, and the odd fragment of pirate radio chatter passed through the distancing lens of delay. On paper, you’d be forgiven for assuming this album is a second-rate exercise in reviving the sonic tropes of ’05 dubstep, retaining all its tired banalities but losing sight of the restless experimentalism that defined it. 

In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Echoing Mala’s insistence that he approaches each production as if it’s his first, LHF trumpet the phrase “beginner’s mind” - and it’s precisely this feeling that defines and unifies their productions: of being compellingly rough cut, provisional in the best sense of the term. In spite of the touchstone here being a decade-old genre, these productions still feel mutable, subject to change and revision, perpetually alert to new possibilities. 

Having said that, there is definitely a concision problem here. And not only in individual tracks, where structures are at times painstakingly, faultlessly rolled out at the expense of any real surprises. Maybe it’s just my gnat-like attention span, but I find it difficult to think of a single artist in existence who merits the double album treatment. I can understand that circumstances may have led to LHF having a huge backlog of tracks (over 1,000, apparently) that deserve to be heard, and the 26 productions here do hang together remarkably well. But that doesn’t make this album any more easy to digest, clocking in, as it does, at well over two hours in length. 

As a result of the sheer volume of music on offer, there’s a tendency for it to blend into a homogenous whole. For the most part it’s difficult to pick out standout tracks, not because there are none but because they get lost in a sea of similar sonic tricks, timbral signatures, melodic and harmonic formations. Maybe that’s the point though - LHF have always been keen to present themselves as a single unit, and Keepers Of The Light feels like a collective effort even though individual track credits are offered up willingly. 

Deeper listening does reveal distinct, if interlocking, styles. Amen Ra is the most chameleonic producer here, roving from the brazenly melodic (the sultry ‘Low Maintenance’), through to blissful dreamscapes (‘Akashic Visions’) and junglist rollers (‘Hidden Life Force 2’). Low Density Matter only makes a handful of appearances, but cleaves most closely to the vintage template laid out by Loefah et al. No Fixed Abode is the maverick, and probably the most strikingly unique talent: ‘Strangelands’ loops cracked, murky textures under a Sun Ra monologue; the brilliant ‘Indian Street Slang’ stitches together grainy Bollywood samples into a masterfully coherent whole. 

The latter part of the album is largely given over to Double Helix productions, and it’s these that most neatly encapsulate the LHF sound. Take ‘No Worries’, where desolate pads, clipped sirens and the phrase “worries in the dance” coalesce into a homage to dancefloor paranoia. So far, so so - until it drops brilliantly with timpani hits and a massive, creamy sub; delicately complex, muscular halfstep at its finest. Or ‘Voyages’, where a frankly pretty bait sample from the Lord Of The Rings soundtrack is dropped over a loping ’05 riddim: so simple it feels almost scandalous to enjoy it, but compelling nonetheless. 

‘Chamber Of Light’ is in many ways the pinnacle. Its angry, semitonal horn riff begets a dense mesh of bongo hits, JA vocal samples and dystopic synth stabs, before giving way to airy hardcore pads at the halfway mark. It’s like an exquisitely constructed mosaic of UK dance music signifiers, perpetually re-shuffled into new configurations and never losing that sense of possibility that lifts this album beyond the realms of nostalgia. LHF’s modus operandi may seem anachronistic in 2012, but it’s a damn sight fresher than most of the stuff out there right now.