Tuesday, 15 December 2009
'It's a London ting'
Since I relocated away from the Big Smoke for the second time, I’ve become increasingly aware of the hypnotic pull the city exerts; every time the coach pulls into Victoria station my identity immediately subsumes into the surrounding morass of ‘London’ as an entity. It’s a strangely safe and comfortable feeling. Ordinarily, traveling on a packed tube train is something to be dealt with rather than appreciated, but for at least the first half-hour post-arrival it takes on the rose-tinted sheen that comes from knowing you’re back in familiar territory.
When you grow up somewhere it’s easy to never stop and consider its effect on your psychology, attitudes and actions. I was only starting to appreciate the city for what it was when I left the first time, and that same experience has been repeated this year. A lot of people never leave – Ken Livingstone for one is proud of having spent his life in London. One of the people who first ‘properly’ introduced me to my home city, Nico Hogg, does an impresive job of photographically documenting some of its less obvious aspects. In focusing on events and areas oft ignored - or simply not noticed at all - by most bystanders, his photos manage to draw attention to some of the thousands of tiny stories that we swiftly pass by daily, creating tiny microcosms of the city's character as a whole.
Bass culture fiend Martin Clark is acutely aware of the city’s characteristic aspects, both conceptual and actual – London’s impact upon the evolution of post-garage music is a subject he has regularly discussed over the last five years of his Blackdown blog (which articulates everything I'm trying to say in this little piece in a far more coherent way). It was also the loose theme of his debut album with production partner Dusk. Upon its release, I initially found Margins Music to be an intriguing curio, delving deeper into the geographic and cultural boundaries and blends that have shaped UK bass music than any other producer’s music.
With a year or so’s retrospect, it’s one of the most complete albums to have emerged from the dubstep scene as a whole – shifting from tracks influenced by its progenitors’ love of early grime (‘Concrete Streets’ and ‘The Bits’, featuring Durrty Goodz and Trim respectively) to periods of swirling ambience and strikingly vibrant garage (‘Focus’). The album’s single most attractive character though is its unrestrained exploration of new musical modalities – droning tones and unusual scales taken from traditional Asian musics, which sound at once foreign and strangely familiar – London’s legacy. The thought of what we’d be left with if the BNP had their way is terrifying: London’s vitality simply wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for its inseparable blend of cultures, nationalities, geographies, wealth, ideas and aspirations that exist alongside one another physically yet often seem to inhabit entirely different spaces (the ‘glass walls’ Blackdown referred to in his interview with Nico).
At the tail end of last month Clark’s label Keysound Recordings released Grievous Angel’s Margins Music Redux, a reimagining of the original album in keeping with his previous Ableton mixes, which manage to highlight hitherto unnoticed aspects of other artists’ tracks. He’s done a stellar job on Margins Music, weaving its entirety into a single unbroken hour or so’s journey and futher focusing the original record’s cross-cultural blend into a hypnotic, delay-drenched drift through London’s astral plane. Vocal snippets are awash in oceans of aquatic echo and often oddly muted within the mix, as though reaching the listener from the far side of some invisible void. Themes ebb and flow across the album’s length, opening and closing with the first and last word from Durrty Goodz, and climaxing during ‘Focus’ with an eerily poignant line from Trim’s ‘The Bits’ – intentional or not, it manages to refer simultaneously to the city’s recent past and the dystopian nature of its near future, as CCTV cameras close in on our every move.
“1984/This was not the world I was born in.
I fell from the sky and was found and kept/But I’m still curb crawling with intent”
As well as drawing attention to the roots of the duo’s distinctive sound, Grievous Angel has also done an impressive job of making explicit their links with other artists across the globe who strive to create a similar sense of dreamlike wonder: the awkward, percussive stutters and asymmetric scales recall Gang Gang Dance as their most abstract, whilst the ghosts of a hundred different voices that rise and fall throughout create a hypnagogic feeling of dissociation – not a million miles from the Wire’s handily lumped together crop of ‘hauntologists’.
It may well be destined to be one of 2009’s ‘lost’ records, buried beneath the shards of its parent genre’s recent fragmentation and the increasing demands of the dancefloor, but there are hidden treasures to be found amongst the alleys and mazelike twists of Margins Music Redux’s cityscape.