Well I'll say one thing for young Chris - he knows how to throw a good party! The second Highroad night at Cosies was as rammed and vibey as the first one back in November. Once again, Chris assembled an imaginative roster of artists and djs for the evening, and the soundsystem was packing plenty of weight, even if the upper frequency range wasn't quite as well-defined as I would've liked. Unfortunately I missed Chris' own warm-up session on the decks, but arrived in time for another mouth-watering set from The Peverelist, whose debut 12 inch "Erstwhile Rhythm/The Grind" hit the streets last week, on Rooted Records' in-house label Punch Drunk. Whether you wanna call it dubstep, minimal, or even 'post-jungle', these tunes have been causing a minor stir on dubplate with their aerodynamically assembled beats, and shades of Hardwax-style hypnotic propulsion, and it'll be interesting to see if they're destined to have any lasting influence over the coming year. Further tantalising evidence of the semi-mythical 'dubstep-minimal crossover' was in evidence, although Tom was keeping the artist/track details close to his chest (damn those plain black dubplates he uses - you can't even grab a sneaky peak at the labels!!), although there was definitely some fresh tunage from Appleblim and Gatekeeper in there, plus Tom's own delicious "Roll With The Punches", which, with it's pensive percussion and wistful squarewave melodies, strikes me as a sort of post-Grime reverie.
We were honoured to have something of a living legend in our midst, when Rob Smith - of Smith & Mighty fame - stepped-up for what was, as far as I'm aware, his first publicly-performed dubstep set. For anyone who forgot, Smith & Mighty were part of the original Bristol hip-hop and dubwise scene that spawned The Wild Bunch, Nellee Hooper, Massive Attack and Tricky. Their early releases on the Three Stripe label are still considered classic records by many (myself included) and they even troubled the mainstream charts with their production work on tracks like Fresh 4's "Wishing On A Star". Their rise to super-stardom seemed assured, but bad contractual dealings saw them fall at the final hurdle. By the time Smith & Mighty had re-grouped, the momentum was lost and even though they continued to record and produce throughout the following decade, there was always that sense that they never achieved the level of success they deserved. Whatever, when someone decides to write the definitive history of Bristol bass-culture, Smith & Mighty deserve a weighty chapter. But what's Rob's new material like? I was expecting it to be quite tentative, but obviously he's been really working hard at it. I managed to grab a few words with him, and he explained that he'd been playing about with dubstep-influenced ideas for about a year. The thing that struck me most was the level of sophistication, that comes from 20 years of production experience. The music was steeped in tradition - lot's of heavy dubbed-out chords and beautiful melodica phrases, chugging dancehall basslines and explosive layers of reverb and echo - but mostly held together by unmistakably halfsteppy beats, and some nicely applied (but not over-used) wobble bass tremors. A few tracks played around with breakstep ideas - there was one that even put me in mind of the breakbeat garage sound of Zinc from a few years ago, and another that had curios hints of Belgian hardcore riffery. It was a mixed bag, but I reckon Rob's definitely onto something, bringing in plenty of familiar elements from dub and breaks that could have some serious crossover potential. I'd hesitate to use the word 'slick', because of the negative implications, but that's basically what it amounts to. Rob's not doing this for a hobby - he's serious about getting these tunes released, and when that happens, I think he could take dubstep to a whole new audience.
Our headline act was Sam Shackleton, of Skull Disco fame. This was the first time I'd linked with Sam for over a year, and the first time I've seen him play out ever. Despite his own assertion that his mixing was a bit 'sketchy', I thought he put on a brilliant show. Hearing a solid hour of pure Shackleton music on a system is quite an experience. He's developed such a distinctive sound, and I love the way that, to the outsider, all his tracks probably sound very similar - he has an almost fetishistic need to use certain key percussion sounds and sub-bass frequencies, and each new piece of music is a slightly different aspect of the greater whole. All the variation is in the details - the endlessly absorbing layers of percussion (Sam's intricate beat programming makes everyone else sound lazy by comparison) that writhe and smolder with all the intensity of a voodoo ritual. The thing I most respect Sam for is the way he has relentlessly pursued his own vision, with only the barest concessions to the dubstep fraternity (basically, the tempo and the bass weight) and now he's starting to get some of the respect he surely deserves, both within the community and further afield from the likes of minimal high-roller Ricardo Villalobos. This in turn seems to have re-energised Shackleton. After a year of personal problems, he was all set to abort the Skull Disco project, but I can confirm that he is very much back in business. The next release is due in about three weeks, with Sam's own bare-boned exercise in sustained tension "You Bring Me Down", coupled with Appleblim's remarkable "Vansan" - full of reverb-heavy Basic Channel chords, pattering 808 percussion and frozen wastes of harmonium drone. I was lucky enough to leave with a test pressing under my arm - cheers lads!!
The night was rounded-off perfectly with a back-to-back session from Bubonic and Kymatik, full of all the frantic energy we've come to expect when these guys hit the decks. Plenty of old favourites making an appearance (both grime and dubstep) , plus some fresh tunes that caught my ear including a Rossi B and Luca track that samples a huge chunk of The Specials' "Ghost Town" - love it! Apparently that one's out now on A.R.M.Y. Records - I must keep an eye out for it. Of course they threw in a few exclusives from local talents like Wedge and Bubonic's production alter ego Forsaken, too. All in all, it was a great evening, and I'm already looking forward to the next one. It was nice to have a proper heart-to-heart chat with Atki2 as well, and special mention for Delsa, who looked like he was gonna thump me at one point - proper punch drunk, innit...
(Some pics of Shackleton's earlier set at Rooted Records here.)