Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Once upon a time in the west

In honour of my re-relocation to the climes of Bristol at the end of this month, it seems appropriate to look at what’s set to be a full-on West Country takeover this autumn.

Geoff Barrow (he of Portishead fame) seems to have doubled his activity of late. His new musical project Beak>, a collaboration with two other local musicians, Matt Williams (the man also known as Team Brick) and Billy Fuller is just beginning to take flight. Their album is due out in September and the songs that have appeared on their MySpace sound lovely: ‘Air’ is a fleet-footed, airy skip across open terrain, keyboard drones gently brushing against an insistent bass pulse. By way of contrast, ‘Battery Point’ glimmers with a stately majesty not a million miles from Mogwai’s recent material. Given the fact that Barrow’s day project took over a decade to finish Three, it seems appropriate that Beak>’s debut was recorded under strictly constrained conditions – entirely live, with no overdubs – and the entire album was written in just twelve days.

Beak> make their live debut on 26th September at Barrow’s Invada Invasion event, which is taking place at the newly re-opened Colston Hall. It’s surprising it hasn’t sold out yet (although, to be fair, I haven’t checked in the last couple of days) as the line-up is one of the best of the year. As well as guest headliners Mogwai and distant friends Zu, Barrow’s roped in a stupidly impressive roster of Bristolian talent, including a solo performance from Team Brick, local boys made (very) good Fuck Buttons, Fuzz Against Junk and, as the poster so aptly puts it, ‘the sonic sorcery of Zun Zun Egui’. It’s going to be a very special all-dayer indeed.

Zun Zun Egui are a very special proposition all by themselves. They were hugely impressive when I first saw them early last year but they’ve really come on in leaps and bounds since then – at Green Man last month they vied with Dirty Three and Gang Gang Dance as the best thing all weekend. Theirs is a truly global sound. Sun-scorched guitars and a tough punk-rock sensibility don’t necessarily sound as though they’d sit easily with frenzied tropicalia and polyrhythmic Latin percussion – and to be fair, they often don’t. That’s part of the charm: the blend they manage to produce sounds both disjointed and entirely, oddly right. Kushal Gaya’s incomprehensible yelp and double-time chanting flows perfectly over stammered, mathy riffs and explosions of sunny keyboard melody. Just listen to ‘El Chuppakabra’ on their MySpace for a bit of an idea – then see them live.

I’ve waxed lyrical enough as it is to bother stating that the dubstep scene in Bristol is pretty much second to none. Whilst a large portion of the London lot have recently been soaking up house and funky influences, the focus in Bristol largely remains on the deeper side of the sound, indebted to both jungle and techno. Local producers have been nurtured over the last few years by the Tectonic and Punch Drunk labels, as well as the smaller, related imprints like Joker’s Kapsize and Kidkut’s fantastic Immerse Records.

The latest release on Immerse is a pair of hard, Detroit-infused steppers from October. While his recent material has tended more towards nocturnal, hypnotic techno, ‘Elephants’ and ‘Medium’ are slabs of lean, stripped back dubstep, unearthed from the archive still coated in grit and grime. Hyetal’s acid-fried ‘Pixel Rainbow Sequence’ has finally emerged as well, with a gorgeous, broken Peverelist remix on the flipside.

Bristol is an incredibly fertile ground for new labels – with a scene closely centred around Rooted Records, there’s a strong base of local support. Already the home of Peverelist’s Punch Drunk imprint, Rooted now acts as a base for a second label, Idle Hands. They recently announced their first release, an anonymous white label, which should hopefully be emerging pretty soon. The two tracks featured on it bear some sonic hallmarks reminiscent of a certain closely-linked producer, although they’re officially by an anonymous artist, and both are available to listen to in full on Idle Hands’ MySpace. To these ears, Side A is the more compelling of the two: a rolling beat drenched in subtle metallic sheen, its hypnotic main melody gradually unfocuses, as though viewed through a slowly-turned camera lens, before emerging into sharp relief once again. Its curiously repetitive quality calls to mind a perpetual motion machine; even as the track ends it merely feels as though you’ve lifted the needle off the plate, allowing its locked groove to continue to infinity.

Hench collective member Wedge has also set the first release from his new label, If Symptoms Persist, for autumn. ISP001’s lead off track is Wedge & Shadz’s beautifully downbeat ‘Running Away’, touching on Bristol’s soundsystem culture and musical heritage in its deep, dubwise bass movements. On the reverse Guido takes over remix duties, and surrounds the original’s vocals in his distinctive, technicolour synth-play and a manic final breakdown. Just today Resident Advisor have run a feature on Guido, along with his 'Purple Trio' associates Joker and Gemmy - entitled 'Bristol's Next Generation', it's well worth a read.

The third local(ish) label to emerge recently has been Steak House, run by Punch Drunk production duo Monkeysteak. Their first 12” gathers a pair of artists from the Iberian peninsula – Mr. Gasparov, who turns in a prettily understated piece of two-step techno (two-stepno?) and Octapush, whose two contributions kick into gear with the gritty urban energy of kuduro, a touch of garage and a dash of UK funky. They’re both very much worth checking out, and testament to the internet’s power for international bass cross-pollination.

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