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Civilization Angus Finlayson , May 2nd, 2012 05:07

Banging on about production values is probably a dull way to assess music. After all, it's the ideas that count, right? Some of the most banal dance music in existence is flawlessly executed, dynamics exquisitely balanced, every frequency tweaked to perfection.

And yet, it's not so easy to unpick the two. As far as the dancefloor's concerned, entwined with any sonic virus is the effectiveness with which it can be injected directly into the nervous system. We've all had that experience of going to a club and wishing the music could be just slightly louder; the desire to feel the kickdrum in your chest as well as your head. More generally, it's so often the sonic surface that bewitches and seduces; uncanny timbres rendered in minute detail, microscopic patterns that bypass the conscious brain to deliver tiny repeated doses of chemical gratification. Part of dance music's appeal lies in its embracing, rather than denial of, these functional underpinnings.

This, for me, is where Distal's Civilization really falls down. The Atlantan producer has a great shtick going, exploring the liminal zone between menacing trap rap, dubstep, Mentasm rave and the lineage running from ghetto house into footwork. Tracks like last year's 'Apple Bottom' were a breath of fresh air amongst all the acts of dreary politesse committed in the name of "UK bass". The Distal sound is a rich seam to mine, and the producer's burgeoning relationship with Bristolian dubstep institution Tectonic - inaugurated with last year's banging 'Angry Acid' - was unexpected but welcome. Here was somebody taking a refreshingly transversal swipe at UK dance music heritage (gabba kicks anyone?) at a time when many were playing it infuriatingly safe.

And, to an extent, this album is admirably bold. Opener 'The Sun' parts the clouds on a menacing trap loop to reveal a huge, dazzling wall of pitch-bent synth. Easily the most daring thing here, 'Gorilla' weaves hyperactive kickdrum syncopations around a loping halftime beat at 100 (or is that 200?) BPM, the whole thing almost strangled by its cartoonish, growling bassline. Elsewhere, the imaginative syncretism alone should be applauded: 'Venom' throws together a viscous, snarling bassline a la Skrillex, snippets of the 'Think' break and one of those pitch black sub lines last heard in a Loefah set circa 2005; 'Around The Fire' imaginatively explores the points of convergence between off-kilter house swing and a pummelling clap-led ghetto beat, dusting the loop with unexpected rhythmic filigree. The producer gets particular mileage out of his taste for aquatic hardcore pads, dropping them over hectic beat constructions ('Anti-Cool', 'Preach On Hustle') to cooling effect, like a damp cloth on a fevered brow.

Still, the whole thing leaves me cold. Is it solely down to the production? More or less everything here sounds anaemic, lacking in body, squashed, diminutive, like it could be pushed over by a strong breeze - or, worse, drowned out by light conversation on the dancefloor. Familiar sounds - a palette of 808s and 909s, strident synth sounds and chopped vocal samples - are only half-present, as if they're just place markers for the real thing, signifying but not actually embodying their respective sonic properties. The result, for me at least, is a perpetual urge to turn it up - as if those richer frequencies are hiding just below the threshold of hearing. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, they're not.

Or, if we try (perhaps futilely) to hear past the sound, is it the ideas themselves that are a bit flat? At points these tracks lack dynamism, opting for a meandering accrual of motifs rather than any more striking use of contrast or juxtaposition. 'Feed Me' is clearly going for bombast, but its various manoeuvres are marred by a nagging sense of inevitably. 'House Party Five', sounding like the trashier cousin of Pearson Sound's sparse productions, is one of the best things here - but it's still somewhat trudging in execution. Production or ideas - ultimately, it's not so easy to unpick the two. But whichever way you spin it - and it does pain me to say it - Distal's debut album is a disappointment.