26 February 2007


Pinch's Tectonic label continues to grow in stature and ambition. The recent release of Moving Ninja's Formations EP suggests a strong affinity with the more ambient, atmospheric possibilities locked within the Dubstep framework. But the boldest move is yet to come - the first Tectonic long-player by a single artist is due to drop in April, and it's awesome. From The Shadows is the debut album by Random Trio's central figure, Cyrus, and in some ways it feels like the first to offer a truly accurate account of what dubstep is (currently) all about. Defiantly hardline in it's outlook, this is a zero-compromise collection of spectral halfsteppers; the almost complete lack of vocals (sampled or otherwise) suggesting an eerie, depopulated nocturnia. Indeed, there's an absence of foreground in general - the barest wisps of melody and dub-texture flit pensively into view, before ducking back into the inky shadows behind the beats. There's not much that could be called a 'riff'' - you could never confuse it with instrumental grime. This music is iPod unfriendly - listen to MP3s on the ear-buds and you'll hear some snares, tambourines and strings, and perhaps the merest hint of a bass undercurrent. This music says 'fuck you' to the convenience of iPod culture - it grew from the soundsystems , and demands to be listened to in that environment, with the cloying sub bass frequencies pushing the air around. You need to feel this music coursing through your entire body, not just your ears. A decent home hi-fi system should be adequate, though. Only serious bass-headz and audio-freaks need apply. In some ways it represents exactly what I'm trying to move away from, yet in others it totally fits the bill. It's certainly as minimal in it's intent as anything coming from the techno community. I think it might prove to be an historically important album, too: in years to come, it will give scholars a benchmark of just how emptied out this 'dance music' became before it evolved into something else. To the casual listener, pumped-up by the information overload of the mainstream, there's practically nothing there to listen to.

The album opens with "Gutter" (I'd love to think it was named in my honour, but very much doubt it), a militant mix of galloping kick drum and teasing whirls of harmonium, before easing into the shivery elegance of "Mind Games", where sweeping string pads and restless bass throb are underpinned by a brutally efficient halfstep riddim that suddenly bursts into a double-time thrash, to startling effect. But then "Paradise Dub" sails out into deep space, it's digidub flavour augmented by the barest brush strokes of environmental texture, subliminal drone and a single, perfect wobble bass note in the middle. Just when you think the album is about to drift off into a catatonic stupor, portentous strains of distant feedback usher in the mighty "Rasta From", brimming with suppressed energy, as the malevolent hi-hats scuttle over quagmire bass and intensely accented snare. A couple of points deducted for falling back on the old rasta dialogue samples, but who's counting? "Dirt" and "Calm Before The Storm" add yet more spine-tingling washes of understated pad melody and barely audible background crowd ambiance - true ghosts lost in the machine - before "Watcher" decimates all in it's path with a relentless bass note throbbing on eighths.

Cyrus' music refuses to give the slightest concession to the needs of the wider market place. It isn't trying to make any new friends. If you weren't already a convert at Dubloaded or FWD>>, this album is unlikely to draw you in. The decision to release on CD might still prove to be a masterstroke, though, as it won't alienate a larger potential audience. But unlike the Hyperdub albums, there will also be a vinyl release, spread over three discs, thus staying true to the 'spirit of the culture'. It's a well structured album, too. Even the split-second pauses between tracks seems to have been carefully tracked to give just the right sense of flow and momentum. This is one of those albums that actually hits it's peak near the end: the final trio of tracks providing a very satisfying finale. "Dark Future" injects a pounding 4/4 kick drum adrenaline rush under swooping washes of synth and a delicious descending bass pattern, whilst "Crying Game" adds amorphous wailing noises and impressionistic dashes of piano to the mix. In fact, it feels like Cyrus is gradually starting to add some musical flesh to the emaciated rhythmic bones, so that by the appropriately named title track it really feels like dawn is approaching. Cyrus steps from the shadows, his eyes blinking involuntarily as the first rays of sunshine sweep across and warm his pale, sallow complexion.

Anyone in the near vicinity is strongly advised to get down to Dubloaded in Bristol, this Friday, where Cyrus will be playing out (along with Dubstep godfather Hatcha) and no doubt showcasing the material on this album, offering a perfect chance to preview in the environment in which this music is ideally suited.

24 February 2007


Everything I post here is from the perspective of an ex-comic book reader/collector. I treasure what I still have, but rarely even look at them. Yet still they excerpt some sort of tug on my subconscious; they are a part of what made me the person I am. I think.

So anyway, last week I took the family over to visit relatives in Belfast. Grannie had bought a few books and comics at the local store to keep our kids amused. For the eldest, who's ten, she'd grabbed a random selection of Marvel and DC titles. Now, my son, gawd bless 'im, couldn't give a flying fuck about superhero comics. He's never been interested in them. Ever. But of course, as you can probably guess, I devoured the fucking lot during our visit, and even made sure to smuggle them home again, so I could peruse at my leisure. I am nearly 38 years old. How sad izzat?

So what do we have here? The Spider-Man and Marvel Heroes annuals are aimed squarely the juvenile market, featuring basic plots, minimal characterisation, colouring pages and puzzle sections. Not a great deal there to chew on, to be honest. Some of the artwork is fun, though. Shane Davis' Spider-Man hits a level of extreme stylisation that I've never witnessed in the web-slinger before - a crooked, spindly caricature with outrageously bulbous eyes. Captain Britain makes an appearance on the contents page of Marvel Heroes, which warms the cockles of my heart, obviously. But enough, let's get to the meaty stuff...

Sticking with Marvel, there's The Astounding Spider-Man #142. Unlike the kiddies' version, Peter Parker is no longer a meek student, but a fully rounded, professional adult. Glad to see he's finally matured. He's up against the usual suspects - Doc Oc, Scorpio,Green Goblin, etc, but the storyline seems to suggest that the reason Spidey keeps fighting the same villains over and over again is due to some sort of conspiracy involving the ruling classes. I love it when writers try to rationise the inherent ridiculousness of comic book logic. I mean, it's all nonsense, isn't it? I've been away for over two decades, yet still all these characters have hardly aged, still having the same problems in their personal lives, with the same people...Forever People, indeed.

Take Steve Rogers aka Captain America. In Marvel Legends #2, Rogers is still haunted by his WWII experiences and especially the death of the original Bucky, still doesn't seem to have anything approaching a normal private life, still has a tense on-off relationship with Sharon Carter and is still in his mid-30s. The guy was only frozen for a couple of decades, he must be over 60 by now! Mind you, Nick Fury looks even better. He fought in WWII as well, yet, even without the benefit of suspended animation, he's still looks fucking great, with just the perennial streaks of grey at the sides of his head. Mind you, the once ever-present cigar seems to have been consigned to the ashtray these days. Despite puffing on those stogies for at least 50 years, Fury's lungs are in great shape now. Back-up strips are Iron Man (inevitable costume upgrade, but still the same old Tony Stark) and Thor in a good old fantasy romp with nice artwork by Scott Kolins, in a sorta European style. Incidentally, these are all published in the UK by Panini Comics (who presumably have exclusive rights with Marvel) and don't they look lovely. Thick card sleeves, luxurious paper quality, sophisticated full colour throughout...it shows up the old Marvel UK for the shoddy operation it was! Although back then even newspapers were in black and white. What happened in the intervening years that made full colour publishing so easy and economically viable? I remember when I was a kid, my dad took me on holiday to Italy, and I was amazed by the quality of their Marvel reprints - even nicer than the US originals (I still have a souvenir issue of Fantastici Quatro lying around somewhere) and it seems like we've finally caught up with that level of presentation. But still, for all the paper quality and artistic sophistication, part of me still yearns for the pulpy world of Kirby, Buscema, Perez et al. It was all about the design, the ruthlessly efficient composition that led your eyes across the page so beautifully. This new generation of artists all bring something fresh, but they just don't scan as nicely. And what ever happened to caption bubbles? The third-person narrator has died. Captions only appear when in the first person, like a substitute for the thought balloon. Today's comics seem to aspire to the condition of motion pictures. The story is propelled entirely by visuals and dialogue. I think this is a trend that began in the '80s. The most significant gain from this has been the vastly improved level of dialogue writing, which can often flows very naturally, and is occasionally rather amusing. But still, I miss those "meanwhile, back at Avengers H.Q..." caption boxes. And then there was that style of caption writing pioneered by Stan Lee, whereby the writer/narrator seemed to be addressing the readers, like we were actually involved, part of the process. Now we are the unacknowledged spectators. Comics just aren't as inviting and friendly as they were. It's probably all Frank Miller's fault.

But anyway, let's move on to the DC stuff: Batman Legends #40 and a graphic novel-style collection called Hush Returns that compiles Gotham Knights #50- 66. Batman is one of the very few heroes with whom I've continued to have some sort of relationship with in adulthood, although the last thing I read was probably something like Batman & Dracula, which was well over a decade ago. Both of these specimens have overlapping plot elements and obviously take place in nearby time zones: the Joker's fall from grace as the criminal king of Gotham (now just a washed out wreck hiding in a derelict amusement park) and Batman's troubled relationship with Green Arrow are common factors, plus both story lines involve figures from Bruce Wayne's past relentlessly closing in on him - namely the Red Hood (who appears to be the second Robin come back to life) and Hush, who might be Wayne's brilliant-but-twisted childhood friend Tommy Elliot. The Joker's part in Hush Returns is the real centerpiece for me, delving back into his origin sequence so brilliantly imagined by Alan Moore back in The Killing Joke. We see the pain behind the cracked smile emerge once more, as he learns the identity of the man who killed his wife. Interestingly, the origin sequence is tampered with slightly: here, the Joker only finds out his wife is dead after the botched chemical plant raid, rather than beforehand - just another example of how, in the comics universe, the sequence of events can be altered, whilst the core facts remain the same. It was also fun to see the guy who makes all the special customs - for the good guys and the bad guys - an independent specialist with his own hidden garment factory, creating all those suits to the hi-specs required of his super-customers ("I don't take sides, I just take cash"). This is an idea I first saw in a short text story called Neutral Ground in the paperback Further Adventures Of Batman, published in 1989. All good, ripping yarns.

Although I've expressed some reservations, the fact remains that I was totally sucked into all these stories, and as I finished each one my overriding reaction was what happens next?! So many intriguing little plot strands and characters to explore. The urge to track down the surrounding issues and flesh out the story lines to my own satisfaction is remarkably strong. Even though much has changed, the characters and situations are still the same ones I followed all those years ago, and it's like coming back to the old neighbourhood and becoming embroiled in all those familiar lives once more. The Marvel and DC universes are so old and vast now, and constantly referencing and re-examining their own histories - the present is always firmly latched onto the past, which in turn informs the future, which can change slightly, but never really detaches itself from the core historical facts. Everything changes enough to ensure we keep reading. Nothing changes enough to ensure that, no matter how convoluted the storyline, by the time it concludes, reality has returned back to the default position. But the fun is in watching it all unfold. I've got a feeling I might be hanging around in these worlds again for a while, as least for a few months. I think a trip to Forbidden Planet is on the cards....

15 February 2007


I shall be away most of next week, but hoping to catch M.R.K. 1, Pinch and Rob Smith's More Rockers at this l'il shindig on the 24th, if I get back in time.

Wicked 'mini-documentary' of Shackleton's in-store appearance now showing at the Rooted blog. Big-up the Madboy!

Also, it's interesting to see what my fellow Bristolians have got to say about the Minimal-Dubstep crossover idea, on this heavy thread at Hijack. Some wise words there...

11 February 2007


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.)

06 February 2007


So I finally got myself hooked-up with Last FM. You can see the little 'recently played' chart/link thing at the top left of the page now. I might move it somewhere else later. I've had people recommending Last FM to me for ages, but I never bothered with it because (it might surprise you to know) I don't actually listen to much music on the computer. I mainly listen to vinyl, CD or tape on separate hi-fi equipment, so most of my listening activity will go unrecorded. But what the hell, I'll give it a go, although I'm not committed enough to become a fully paid-up subscriber just yet. To be honest, I don't think I've fully grasped the potential of Last FM (other than to show-off one's brilliant taste in music??) but perhaps it'll prove useful in the long run. If nothing else, it'll probably reveal a lot about my wider musical tastes. I listen to lots of stuff that never gets mentioned here...it's weird that I only feel motivated to write about certain types of music, isn't it?

At the time of writing there's only two MP3s up on the chart, which is what I've been listening to for the past half-hour. One is a long mix, though. It's the latest effort from Siah Alan, aka Patternloader and you can grab it here. His blog has always been a good read, but now he's branching-out into mixing. So far, technically speaking, the results are a bit patchy. But there aren't many people with the balls to do all their learning in public, and of course I empathise after all the struggles I had trying to re-master the art of beat-matching throughout 2005-06. There's still a few moments of greatness in there, and you certainly can't fault the imaginative track selection (and I'm not just saying that because he used one of my 'Gutter dubz'!). My only advice would be (a) don't give up because it can only get better and better and (b) try and keep the transitions short 'n sweet, for the time being - there's a tendency to be a bit over-adventurous with some of the longer segues. But the important thing is, Siah feels an overwhelming urge to share his musical tastes and he knows that mixes are the only ethically approved method of disseminating new music, so he's fucking going for it, and best of luck to him. He's actively encouraging unknown producers to send him their work, so what are you waiting for? I personally took a decision last year that, no matter how much I enjoyed it, I had to stop encouraging people to send me demos, because it was becoming a real problem finding the time to listen to it all, and to give constructive criticism, etc. Some stuff I never got around to listening to, never even replied to, and I bet the kids who sent them figured I was an areshole - and who could blame them? I would love to be a sort of John Peel figure, plowing through piles of demos all day and putting the best stuff in the mix (and getting paid a salary for the privilege!) , but I had to re-focus and get my priorities sorted out. That's one of the reasons why there's no contact info on this blog anymore. It's a shame, I know, and maybe I would've found the next Boxcutter this year, or whatever, but this is how it's got to be from now on. Of course, all my regular producer friends can keep the beats coming (you know who you are) but that's about all I can actively manage to deal with for the time being.

Hey, there might actually be snow in Bristol this week. 70% chance tomorrow night, according to the Met. Office. Cool. It's been a long time since we had a decent dollop of the white stuff around here...

01 February 2007


So...another eye-opening thread at Dissensus. It's been a while since I last tuned into Rinse FM, but the thought of pumping minimal techno on the Capitol's leading underground pirate station is bound to increase speculation. Whatever the motives or circumstances, it feels weird, because London's never really been techno-friendly, has it? Massive generalisation, I know, but still you could say that this thing we call the 'Nuum, which coalesced into being from House, Hip Hop and Reggae culture, was never as much in thrall of the coldness, the austerity, the economy of expression that pure techno invites, as, say, Sheffield or Berlin. Indeed, when I think of minimal now, I automatically look to the Germans for inspiration - if I was a professional journalist, no doubt I'd be taking expense-paid trips to Berlin this year, hanging out at the clubs and record stores, trying to divine some meaning from it all. In the UK, it feels like 'proper' Techno's been dead for a decade. As my comrade Ali Wade said recently in conversation, "...at the end of the nineties it all just got stuck in a loop. it's not surprising so many people (dare I say younger than myself) diss techno." Others have made mention to me of that 'generation gap', too. The idea that anyone under the age of thirty thinks techno is irredeemably naff is a sobering concept...and it's a wall of prejudice I'd love to help destroy - time and energy permitting. One thing that needs to be reclaimed for starters is the name 'Techno'. In the past few years I've heard some incredibly cheesy, unimaginative music described as Techno, and it pisses me off. But then, maybe the nature of techno has changed and I'm just an old fart. And anyway, I don't listen to music just because of the way it's labeled. I listen out for a certain approach, and a certain feeling...and theoretically it can come from anywhere.

But back to the main thrust - the dubstep-minimal crossover. Or lack of. My friend Tom 'Peverelist' Ford was scratching his head recently, trying to answer questions sent by an inquisitive journalist on this matter. Of course, it's all Tom's own fault for producing such a zeitgeisty tune that he finds himself having to go on record with his opinions. Personally, I think the magazine in question is jumping on this idea a little too early...I think it's a subject that should remain in the more fluid, nebulous world of blogs and forums for a little while yet. Heh.

If there is a crossover, then where is it likely to occur? Will techno absorb more dubstep, or vice-versa? In Berlin, the minimal scene centers around the Hard Wax record store - so much so that much of the music that has flowered from the Basic Channel root is often referred to as coming from the 'Hard Wax stable'. If Minimal Techno has a spiritual heart, it's probably that shop. Check the Hard Wax online store and you'll see they've got a pretty healthy dubstep section. So obviously the people who run it, and the people who buy from the store, are aware of dubstep, absorbing the sounds and incorporating them into their mixes (and if anything gets the crossover ball really rolling, it'll be the djs, not just the producers, who'll be leading the way in terms of priming audiences for change). The only actual piece of music I've heard to emerge from the Hard Wax stable that I would say clearly displays a dubstep influence is Substance's Remix No.1 of Monolake's "Alaska", which has a strong halfstep vibe, combined with heavy, almost claustrophobic textures that put me very much in mind of Vex'd. In fact, it's so dubsteppy that it's not really techno anymore! I guess it's an experiment on Substance's part, which might lead to more intriguing cross-pollination shortly. It's one of those one-off things that pricks-up my ears (like the track "Blocked" on Andy Stott's long-player, which could almost be a Headhunter tune). But I don't think we're gonna see "Minimal Dubz - The Croydon-Berlin Alliance Vol. 1" just yet, eh?

So far, so ambiguous...

But what of dubstep producers incorporating techno elements? Well, it's been happening for ages anyway. Look at Mala. And what about Mark One? I know he's got that techno gene inside him (the guy was raised in Sheffield, fer chrissakes!) and he's already recorded the odd banging tune, like "Can't Touch Dis", which others might describe as 4x4 grime, but to my ears reveals a different legacy. In fact, I said as much when I reviewed it two years ago, for an early dubstep think-piece. Then there's some of those lovely tunes Search & Destroy used to make, like "Wavescape" and "Sphere", which, although still classed as dark garage, revealed a sublime synthetic sheen of minimalist intent at their hearts. Or what about "Round Sound" from Artwork's first and only Big Apple EP? Rhythmically, it's not techno - but it comes back to what I said before about feeling and emotion. It has that 'star quality' that I'm always looking for. There's a lot of threads from the 2003-04 period of dubstep's development that need to be re-examined. I'm not the only one who feels this. My man Autonomic feels it too...maybe not in exactly the same way, but I think Paul would agree with me in principle. Even some of those late-comer halfstep evangelists (hahaha!) like Paul Meme can't hide a sense of restlessness when reviewing singles earlier this week. We all know dubstep desperately needs a kick up the arse right now, and we've all got our own theories on how that's to be achieved. Some people maybe think it needs more vocals and should be aiming to get to the Next Level. That might well be true, but if so I probably won't be listening. I'm into undiluted music. I'd rather keep it instrumental, at a more basic emotional level. I don't wanna see more traditional musical forms being bolted onto it. Of course I'm being really idealistic here, and I know you can have great vocal tracks - how about Goldie's "Angel"? -a crowning achievement of the mid-90s d'n'b scene. So maybe with the right voice, the right lyric and the right tune, there might be someone out there who can make a vocal dubstep tune that'll reduce me to tears. I hope it happens. But aesthetically I'm just following this really fucking lean, cold vibe right now.