After listening to the Metalheadz box again, it got me skimming through other d'n'b records of the period and not really getting much excitement from it all...perhaps it was little wonder that my brief love-affair with the genre was on the wane. The overriding sense I get is that d'n'b was determined to become sophisticated and highly polished, musical is the most conventional sense of the word, lifting endless jazz-inflected soundbytes (Rhodes piano, saxophone, smooth quasi-orchestral harmonies) and a general receding of ambition in terms of breakbeat manipulation and sampledelic science. True, there was some darker edged stuff coming through in Techstep and Neurofunk, but that wasn't a sound I found personally appealing. In fact, for me some of the most interesting d'n'b ideas from the period came from acts outside of the scene. And I'm not talking about the Squarepusher/AFX/Plug axis (though there were some cool records there too), but from the alternative Rock/Pop spectrum. Perhaps that was the last time that 'black' dance music sounds were embraced and incorporated into 'white' rock music, to any meaningful degree.
So you had formally acoustic Everything But The Girl playing with breakbeats on "Walking Wounded" in the Top 40, but also the more esoteric Stereolab adding a subtle d'n'b undercurrent on tracks like "Parsec", from their breakaway album Dots And Loops. Fascinating to hear that retro sixties-flavoured French sci-fi pop underscored by hyperactive filtered breaks. The album was partially recorded in Chicago with John McIntire, who was also experimenting with d'nb dynamics with his art-rock ensemble Tortoise. The track "Jetty" from their TNT album was seemingly a deliberate juxtaposition of programmed beat trickery and live performance - about three minutes in the track morphs from electronica into live instrumentation so artfully that you can barely see the join.
A much more overt clash of d'n'b with retro-pop came from the all-but-forgotten Mono, who's album Formica Blues made brief waves in '97. Mono were a duo, combining the breathy vocals of Siobhan De Mare with the studio-suss of Martin Virgo. On "Life In Mono", they combined a love of John Barry soundtracks with dub bass and elegantly sculpted breaks to create, what is for me, one of the landmark crossover tunes of the period, although "The Outsider" was hard on it's heels with a rhythm track clearly indebted to the ruffer end of the Junglist spectrum. At the time, I assumed that Mono would do for D'n'B what Portishead did for hip hop - and be fucking huge! - but as far as I know they disappeared soon after the album was released.
There was also a general sense that dance and rock were still on talking terms. Remember Noel Gallagher contributing some skewed guitar to Goldie's "Temper Temper". I can't imagine, say, Arctic Monkeys guesting on a Loefah record today. Of course, Noel also contributed vocals for Chemical Brothers' "Setting Sun", and besides most of those producers in the Big Beat scene (the other big breakbeat movement of the period) came from backgrounds in rock/pop groups anyway. As other, far more astute commentators than myself have already noted, Black and White music have never seemed as segregated as they are now, barring the odd renegade collectives like Various Production. Having spent the last few days wandering through 1997, I wonder if that's such a good thing.