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Proc Fiskal
Insula Bob Cluness , July 24th, 2018 13:08

An album of hyper-kinetic grime instrumentals that still breathes with moments of serenity within the antagonistic sounds of modern life

Even though it took a bit longer than most other electronic music genres, grime has now surpassed the moment, where a sound, style, terminology, and identity that was informed by a decidedly London-centric geography can now be seen, heard and made around the world. As a result not only has grime’s form of 8-bar beats and heavy bass has long been tinkered with, the content that make up grime tunes is now also up for re-consideration and recontextualisation.

This is pretty evident in Insula, the debut album from Edinburgh producer Joe Powers aka Proc Fiskal on the Hyperdub label. As a producer, Powers is both too young to have experienced the early days of Grime in the noughties and he is also geographically removed from its heartland of London. As the album’s title Insula suggests, this is an album that bares the hallmark of the shut-in, someone who pores over and consumes grime in a virtual environment far away from East or South London. But thanks to our hyper-connected world, instead of a “scene” or “endz” to rely on, Powers has an infinitely referential and accessible library of sounds that can be plucked from a variety of YouTube videos, sharity blogs, free VST plugins, online forums, and social media.

What Powers makes as a result is a collection of instrumental grime tunes that are crammed with a multitude of references and sounds from grime’s vintage heyday, and beyond. There are numerous nods to the eski style of Wiley in the use of thickly wobbly bass and melodic hi toms; In ‘Punishment Exercise’, you can hear the classic Wiley Korg VST sounds that later appeared on the likes of Skepta’s ‘That’s Not Me’ and Ruff Sqwad’s ‘Jampie’. You have the overt nod to Terror Danjah in the way Powers creates intricate, tightly knitted and meshed melodic lines using sounds originating from old PC software and console gaming over the whipcrack beats. And then is also the way, from the use that Powers utilizes Grime’s “sino” sounds (a term coined by Hyperdub label head Kode9 that can easily be heard on the aforementioned Ruff Sqwad) from the use of kung-fu “sword clash” samples on ‘Kontinuance’ and ‘Vaudeville’, to the elegiac oriental sounds that come from various PC and console games soundtracks.

But while Insula could so easily have been a kitsch grime nostalgia trip full of cheeky chiptune sounds and old skool poses (something that Powers has been stated as looking to consciously avoid), what he does instead is delves into a mode of tune construction and modelling that spins his tunes away and beyond from classic sources. Insula is an album that is furiously mobile in numerous ways. Powers overclocks the speed of many of the tunes so that they’re nudging the 160 bpm areas of drum and bass and footwork. This means that on tracks such as ‘Apple Juice’, ‘Dopamine’, and ‘Dish Washing’, the hyper-kinetics are palpable. The inordinately light and gossamer melodies chirrup and flutter overhead. Powers also enjoys throwing flurries of helium saturated, semi-human sounds that bleep and squawk at you from all directions, before throwing in various samples that bear no relation to the track itself, such as the old blues singer on ‘Hoax Nos Trinit’. Then there is the way he utilises the sounds of mobile and online tech and apps themselves as a sound bank, from the pops, clicks, and tones of mobile phones and the clackety-clack of keyboards in ‘Scotch Precog’ to the addictive endorphin spikes of social media notifications and ensnaring rush sound-motifs of online gaming can be heard throughout the album.

But what makes Insula so far removed from other grime instrumental albums is the intensity of effect and emotion he generates through his his use of field recordings, conversations, and interactions. The opening track ‘Restart’ shows the way he juxtaposes TV programmes of car crime in North Edinburgh with grainy VHS-style corporate ads for hotels, representing the clash between utopian regeneration and the bleak reality of life in the producer’s home city.

Nearly every track on Insula is a digital collage of layered snippets of phone calls to friends, various call centres and taxi ranks, ripped YouTube clips, recorded phone conversations in the street and various other samples recorded in situ, as Powers develops emotional maps that emanate from his head out into the streets of Edinburgh.

In producing the tunes for Insula, Powers has talked about piecing these elements of audio together “to preserve and represent what my experience is like. Right now it’s a little like social media, in that looking back on this album might be like looking at Facebook from years ago, or going through old group chats, like a time capsule.” Alongside the crackle of phone lines and depreciated sound quality of live recordings, the world that Powers creates is a fractured mix of melancholia and depressive introspection that provides a contrast to the sugary feel good nature of the music. ‘Achiltibuie’ for example has plaintive synths over a conversation in the street where Powers seems to be threatened by group of young neds in the street (“If my dad knew what was going on, he’d eat yer fuckin’ eyes!” goes one, bizarelly), while on ‘Kontinance’ and ‘Punishment Exercise’ the tunes trail into codas of tunes from car stereos and kids from the estate boasting to news reporters about scars and fights.

Insula is an album that speaks for those of us who suffer from a mix of overstimulated discourse, hyper-referential cultures, and emotions fuelled by the constant serotonin drip-drip of social media affirmations. It’s a life and worldview that papers over various amounts of anxiety and depressive exhaustion. But despite the surfeit of sounds and samples in Powers’ productions, he’s made an album that can still breathe with moments of serenity amongst the freneticism, one that provides moments where the antagonistic, alienating sounds of modern life can be reworked to make something pleasing, even joyful to the ear. Insula suggests new paths and routes to making and enjoying grime music outside those of the established tribes and stances that made the genre what it is, to a sounds that is to be experience more in the virtual than the physical.