PINCH - UNDERWATER DANCEHALL (Tectonic 2xCD)
How to successfully translate a soundsystem-orientated genre like dubstep into the home listening album format whilst remaining true to it's core values? One obvious route to the nation's earbuds and coffee tables would involve the employment of vocals, but would this alienate the scene's hardcore audience? No doubt Rob Ellis, aka Bristol's dubstep godfather Pinch, has spent many hours pondering on this problem. In the end, the decision was simply too close to call, so he's taken the bold step of releasing his debut album in both vocal and instrumental form, giving listeners the opportunity to choose the one that best suits their needs.
So CD1 opens with the familiar, edgy rhythms and swerving bass of Pinch's 2005 anthem 'Qawwali', now renamed 'Brighter Day' in reference to the lyrics added by Dub War resident MC Juakali. 'Qawwali' has been an undisputed anthem at Dub War, and no doubt the NYC crowd are used to hearing Juakali vocalising over the track, but for everyone else, the first time you hear his forthright vocal style rampaging across Qawwali's introspective mood is a bit of a shock. But actually the juxtoposition works surprisingly well. By enforcing a verse/chorus structure, the sparse, ponderous arrangements take on new life as musical hooks and punctuations within Juakali's flow. In short, it sounds catchy as fuck. Perhaps not quite Top 40 material, but still a startling shift in emphasis and energy.
From there, the album delves into previously unheard territory, with Pinch looking closer to home for collaboration with Bristolian chanteuse Yolanda, who's earthy, soulful pipes grace two tracks, 'Get Up' and 'Battered'. The precedent of co-opting female soul singers has a long and successful lineage in Bristol's urban underground, and Pinch's decision to work with such a powerfully expressive vocalist could prove to be as significant as when Massive Attack first invited Shara Nelson into the studio. Time will tell! A more adventurous application of 'feminine pressure' occures on "Angels In The Rain" which features the Indian harmonies of Indi Khur, who has previously collaborated with fellow Bristolian producer Atki2. Indi's exotic mantra blends beautifully with Pinch's textural palette of piano arpeggios and radiant drones. But the finest moment of all is surely "One Blood, One Source", a collaboration with another local vocalist called Rudey Lee. Rudey's sweet vocal style, delivered with a silky Lovers touch yet with deep-rooted lyrical depth, perfectly complements one of Pinch's most melodically enchanting arrangements to date.
Having become accustomed to the vocalised disc, one might assume that the instrumental-only version would merely sound like a collection of backing tracks waiting for a point of focus, or even a readymade karaoke disc for all those budding MCs and vocalists to version over...? But it's a testement to Pinch's production skills that CD2 is a completely satisfying listening experience in it's own right. His beats may be dry, brittle and emaciated but the hair-trigger percussive ticks that flicker pensively around the central halfstep grooves are full of nervous, urgent energy. Within these beats, Pinch weaves dark magical arrangements, full of eerie, amorphous textures, dubbed-out synth, suspense-filled pads, and it goes without saying that the bass frequencies are weighty throughout. At times there is a mood similar to some of the best moments in album-orientated electronica from the first half of the '90s - think Autechre's "Incunabula" or Black Dog's "Bytes" - but this is pure coincidence, as I know for a fact that Pinch is oblivious to this particular corner of dance music history.
Tellingly, two of the finest tracks are those which he chose not to vocalise on the first disc. "Widescreen" is simply stunning, with chilling synth-strings that briefly rise and shatter into a staccato morse-code riff - a distant, haunted rave signal of aching beauty. Closing track "Lazarus" is a remarkable excursion into the the outer limits, with a slurred, de-centred rhythm that compares favourably with the experimental syncopations of Techno's leading innovator Ricardo Villalobos, augmented by another beautifully understated pad melody full of hope and yearning - a perfect sense of closure.
All told, Pinch has succeeded in his mission with honour and integrity. The instrumentals will strike a chord with the hardcore massif and lovers of melodic electronica, whilst the vocal disc might even earn him a Mercury Prize nomination. I wonder if the bookmakers will give me decent odds in that...?
(first published in Woofah #2)