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Livity Sound
Livity Sound Rory Gibb , November 8th, 2013 07:13

Every musical style has its own origin myth, where what started life as a nebulous cluster of interrelated activities is woven into a rather more simplified version of reality. As the most recent UK genre to have exploded all guns blazing into mainstream consciousness, dubstep's has been retold sufficient times to have hardened it into a concrete narrative: a few small crews of DJs and producers in South London taking garage deeper, darker, junglier, with basement sessions and massive sound systems mutating it into the first rave-derived form to truly elevate sub-bass sculpture and bodily immersion to high art form. The rest has become history by this point.

Yet every listener has their own origin point too. Dance music is about communal moments, sure, but those are formed of a patchwork of unique individual experiences, and in that sense the grand narrative only really tells part of the story. Dubstep was a revelation when I discovered it mid-to-late last decade - it was the first dance music to stir up in me an insatiable, monomaniacal appetite that lasted several years - but despite growing up in the capital, I was detached from the community and new forms being cooked up in London. Instead my earliest experiences with the sound were while at university in Bristol, when the city's own dubstep community was blossoming into a prolifically creative hub in its own right. With influences from the city's rich dub, reggae and sound system culture and subtle Detroit and Berlin techno undercurrents threaded in, the music being made around that time and released through labels like Punch Drunk, Skull Disco and Tectonic (and further afield, the nascent Hessle Audio) felt fresh, exciting and brimming with energy; as if, having spent several years coiled in a state of terse, half-stepped readiness, dubstep had spring-released all that tension and exploded into sleek, propulsive battle.

Alongside the thriving Hessle Audio in London, the work of Livity Sound, the label and live collective formed in 2011 by Punch Drunk head Tom Ford (Peverelist), Joe Cowton (Kowton) and Craig Stennett (Asusu), now feels like the logical evolutionary end point of the techno-infused Bristol dubstep sound. The trio all cut their teeth in the Bristol scene, and their take on techno - released so far across eight hand-stamped 12"s and now gathered on CD and digitally as the Livity Sound compilation - trips through restless, steely and exploratory mid-tempo zones, the kind of place that the city's strand of the genre would likely always have ended up. (Tellingly, when I met Ford earlier this year to discuss Livity for a feature in The Wire, he admitted that he sees little difference between his current approach and what he was doing when he first emerged seven-odd years ago.)

The connection is most obvious in Livity's continued focus on sound system impact. Each of the eighteen tracks gathered on Livity Sound absolutely wrecks on a big rig, ripping ragged from the speakers, turning small basement rooms into packed, humming resonance chambers and settling teeth and viscera rattling. Anyone who's been out raving to the Hessle Audio crew in the last 18 months will likely have experienced the almighty body slam of Pev & Kowton's wiry, anthemic 'Raw Code', where tsunamis of luminescent blue fizz abruptly send an unrelenting hail of diamond-hard drums slamming down onto unsuspecting dancers. Kowton's music packs the impact and perverse catchiness of early grime; recent solo cut 'TFB' (not strictly a Livity release so not included here, but a fixture in the trio's DJ sets) channels its energy arrow-straight horizontal rather than downward, and the result is even more raucous, chugging along like a steam train on a club floor and compelling you to chase after it (hands and lighters in the air, of course).

But the devil's in the details. There's also a lulling, psychoactive edge to Livity Sound, present especially in Pev and Asusu's tracks, that mirrors the way that the best dubstep tracks would operate on two levels at once: as murder in the dance, with a mid-bar twist 'n' kink that was irresistible to move to, yet also meditative and relaxing enough to stand still and simply become absorbed - a tactile and soothing flow of sonic pressure that swept across you, wave after wave. Asusu's 'Rendering' encodes those traits in a texturally exquisite piece of minimal techno, its sparkling one note pulse synchronised to a heartbeat kick and evolving ever-so-incrementally across seven minutes that seem to stop time. The skittish, halting 'Too Much Time Has Passed', meanwhile, comes across like a cousin of Appleblim and Peverelist's 2008 Skull Disco collaboration 'Circling', a vortex of tiny percussive fragments, dust and grit that spiral around a central fulcrum like water swirling down a plughole.

Pev's own music, meanwhile, still remains among the most advanced, futuristic and trippy dance music currently emerging from anywhere. He's a distinctive rhythm scientist, stirring up angular dub effects and cocktails of fat subs, tremulous open cymbals and fragmentary melodies into devilishly funky tracks that don't build and drop so much as peak, trough, tumble and soar, by turns. His work for Livity connects marginally more to straight-up techno than his early Punch Drunk releases, but only just. 'Salt Water' darts from side to side like a hypnotist's pendulum. 'Aztec Chant''s splintered breaks riff on hardcore rave but coast smoothly along atop a pillowy sub-bass cushion, so well-weighted that the track seems to expend no energy at all in getting from A to B. 'Livity' is totally unhinged, its emerald green melodies zooming at high speed around the track's percussive axis like particles around the LHC.

Since starting the label, the trio have started to play an increasing number of collaborative, predominantly hardware-based live shows, where their individual tracks are blurred together, their dividing lines crumbled away in clouds of dub effects. Unsurprisingly then, their more recent collaborative tracks are among the compilation's best. Pev & Kowton's 'Endpoint' seethes and lashes out with barbed percussion, before a great riptide of space dust erupts and hangs shimmering in the air. It is, in a word, spectacular. And Pev & Asusu's 'Surge', which opens the second CD, couldn't match its name better; after an opening minute of grind and hiss it gallops into life, ushered along by screaming walls of excess noise, each one like a rave siren or police car amplified and violently distorted, to the point that the track becomes a nerve-shredding cacophony of alarm, warning of dread events to come.

There's an almost subliminal link encoded there to earlier Pev track 'Dance Til The Police Come', released mere weeks before Bristol's Stokes Croft was hit by smashy unrest that preceded the wider summer 2011 riots by a few months. Indeed, while not explicit (or even, most likely, intentional), there's something almost polemical about Peverelist's tracks that reverberates outward through Livity Sound as a whole. They can be treacherous - as ambiguous, volatile and uneasy as the experience of life under contemporary capitalism, with their cryptic, labyrinthine patterns of drums, eerie melodies and sub-bass feinting and distorting your perception of reality, leading you to unexpected blind endings, closing to tunnel vision, or totally reshaping space around you. Yet their overall energy is positive and empowering. Rather than tyrannically commanding that you dance and providing a fixed schematic blueprint within which to do so, they necessitate action but offer you wriggle room for interpretation, demanding active rather than passive engagement.

When young people rightfully kicked off in 2010 over rising university fees, events followed soon after by the 2011 riots, sound systems were heard joyfully pumping out bolshy brostep tunes and The Bug in front of the occupied Conservative HQ at Millbank. It made me think of Pev, and the way his tunes - like several of his contemporaries - were capable of rousing nuanced emotions, from dread to positivity and euphoria, well beyond the brash and testosterone-fuelled conception of the genre in most mainstream media eyes.

It always surprises me that Peverelist isn't more widely appreciated; he's still regularly playing in tiny basements to tiny crowds, which I guess is testament to the purity of vision he applies to his approach; I can't imagine him deviating from that path for anything, least of all an easier career trajectory. The complexity and enigmatic nature of Pev's beats could lead (and has led) to them being misconstrued as austere; the same goes for the bristling, hoods-up intensity of Kowton tracks like 'More Games' and Asusu's stark, precise sound design. Each to their own, but in gathering Livity Sound's output to date all in one place, this compilation actually highlights how immersive and involving their music can be, especially at high volume, with dancers in place to complete the feedback loop. As is unsurprising for a collection of tracks originally designed and cut for sound system and dancefloor play, it can be wearing to experience all in one sitting on headphones. But Livity Sound, in charting the work to date of a collective still at an early stage in their activities together, is a living document of a vital link in a chain of futuristic and rousing UK party music stretching back to the days of rave. Long may they continue to bedazzle and brutalise.

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