After a month or so's hiatus, the latest edition of CB.OB's Short Circuitry column has just been published at Muso's Guide, with a focus on the current crop of producers operating in the grey areas once called 'wonky'. Full transcript up here, though lacking added links and videos.
There’s something inherently reductive about the concept of genre. Ask any musician what they think of the latest term to describe their sound, and the answer will usually be preceded by a wince. It remains largely an academic concern – for many music writers, naming and constraining is a large part of what they do. It provides a rough conceptual map, a basis for understanding the nature of general trends as well as sudden, rapid shifts in sound. Discourse to indulge the inner geek, essentially.
Bass music provides ideal fodder for genre-junkies, with both dubplate culture and ongoing advances in technology ensuring that emergent sounds swiftly ripple outward from their epicentre. But it also poses a problem in terms of definition. UK bass producers are largely magpie-like in nature, grabbing good bits from wherever they can be sourced and creating dubious regions where one neatly defined style begins to bleed into others. As of 2010, the scene roughly centred around dubstep is in a greater state of flux than it’s ever been, pushing outward in as many different directions as you’d care to name. Still, there’s certainly a debate to be had as to whether quibbling over names is really of any consequence – after all, this is dance music – and the answer is typically tough to pin down.
Take late 2008 as a case in point: the irritatingly self-limiting term ‘wonky’ was briefly tossed around, before it was met by disdain and antipathy from the majority of artists it was used to define. Roughly speaking, the title fitted the slouched hip-hop influence and awkward structure, but wonky’s day began and ended with a brief flurry of records around the end of 2008. Admittedly, Zomby’s sketchy Hyperdub EP couldn’t have fitted the druggy genre name better, the viscous bass tar of ‘Kaliko’ and ‘Aquafresh’ offsetting rave nostalgia with an unhealthy dollop of strong cough syrup. Meanwhile, Rustie’s aptly-named ‘Zig-Zag’ swaggered onto the floor with a headful of cheap cider and cheaper amphetamines, and the pitchbent synths of Ikonika’s debut ‘Please’ swung unsteadily before collapsing. But less than a year later, an unprecedented lightness of touch in his later releases had proven Zomby’s contribution to be a relative one-off in that restless producer’s oeuvre, and Ikonika was filling her DJ sets with razor-edged house/garage hybrids.
Still, in spite of any debate over naming conventions, the development of new sounds within that sphere has continued to be hugely exciting to witness. In a post on his excellent Rogue’s Foam blog last June, sometime Wire contributor Adam Harper talked about the process of ‘wonkification’ as separate from any one type of music, and its ‘corrupting relationship to the more conventionalised genres that it sprang from’. The early part of this year has seen a raft of releases from upcoming (and, in some places, established) producers that lend real credibility to this notion. Fundamentally, they never become lost in a fug of self-indulgent experimentation – all of these producers are creating music that bristles with nervous energy, each one wired to the gills with mains electricity.
James Blake’s Harmonimix deconstructions of R’n’B and hip-hop are a particularly good example. Both subvert the original songs’ intent, hinting at something quite different while leaving the core elements of each track largely intact. Released in February on a limited white label, his remix of Lil Wayne’s ubiquitous ‘A Milli’ inverts Wayne’s boisterous swagger by placing his self-aggrandising vocal performance over a music box lullaby of gently trickling melodies. His take on Destiny’s Child’s ‘Bills Bills Bills’ is even better, his own dissonant harmonies over the original’s vocal performance turning the sweet ‘n’ sassy into something threatening and monstrous. In this case, Blake’s efforts entirely alter the underlying qualities of each track – Wayne’s sexual energy is neutered, and Destiny’s Child cease to be independent women and succumb to sinister androgyny. But, crucially, both remain fiendishly danceable, providing an entirely different take on dubstep’s darkened club energy.
Blake’s slo-mo soul often sounds like the product of an old-style singer trapped in a computerised body. His debut release for Untold’s Hemlock label last year felt like merely the tip of the iceberg, and a flurry of material this month suggests that was very much the case. As well as the Harmonimix 12”, two releases on Brainmath and Hessle further hone his earlier experiments into languid explorations of tension and emotion. The Bells Sketch EP on Hessle Audio is slowed to half-tempo and delicately strung out, as if he’s physically inserted fingers into the music’s core and gently teased apart each fibre. The title track is simply gorgeous, guided by a pair of interlocking vocals buried so deeply that they lose all nominative sense and reach some subconscious level where pure sonics matter more than words. His Brainmath release, a collaborative 10” with Airhead, operates in a similar space where voices are detuned until they lose all semblance of meaning. All of Blake’s music so far taps into that sweet melancholy that lies at the heart of great soul music, and in doing so reimagines how machines can express emotion. It’s undeniably music of now, but goes far further than almost all of his contemporaries in connecting to a pre-computer past.
Just as Blake’s music thrives off a central contradiction – analogue in tone and nature, but a true product of digital equipment – Ikonika creates tracks that are unashamedly digital, but with a raw and wildly anarchic edge. One of the first producers to begin Hyperdub’s transition from dark and dystopian pressure to wide-open song structures, she is due to release her debut album in April. Contact Love Want Have – a neat title reportedly pieced together with a group of fridge poetry magnets – successfully retains the rough ‘n’ ready feel of her earlier music and fuses it to the kind of house-influenced material she’s playing now. The result is an intriguing and addictive curio, both inextricably tied to ‘UK bass’ (in its loosest sense) and stubbornly individual.
Eschewing the kind of pathological attention to miniscule detail that can mar electronic musicians in a haze of computer programming, her music is direct and punky in attitude. Earlier tracks like the softly churning ‘Millie’ and ‘Sahara Michael’ brim with such an excess of ideas that the unpolished production only serves to enhance their considerable charms. Upcoming single ‘Idiot’ does real justice to the description of her synths as ‘singing’, hinging off a broken funky beat and a stupidly catchy but irregular bleep motif, and the gorgeous shuffle-beat of siren song ‘Yoshimitzu’ moves with all the grace and restraint of a Kurosawa classic. That her blurred melodies are tied to tighter percussion than ever before merely serves to emphasise that contrast, creating a kind of loose impressionism above beats and bass that lock to form a solid groove. Her forthcoming remix of Egyptrixx’s ‘The Only Way Up’ further smoothes out that contradiction to spectacular effect, creating a mini-epic that drowns in a swirling ocean of delay-drenched melody.
Next, a scene veteran: Jamie Teasdale cut his teeth as a member of early dubstep mentalists Vex’d, whose Degenerate album inadvertently spawned a host of aggressive (and increasingly generic) imitators. His later material – first as Jamie Vex’d, and now as Kuedo – took the scorched earth distortion of Vex’d and changed the emphasis, downplaying the harder edge for waterfalls of incandescent shimmer and crashing, arrhythmic bass. One name change later, his Dream Sequence EP on Planet Mu refines this sound to quite dazzling effect. What makes these four tracks so refreshingly addictive is Kuedo’s use of melody as a basic structural element, each one built from huge Lego-like blocks of colour that stack upon one another before suddenly toppling. Opener ‘Starfox’ clinches the prize for Short Circuitry’s favourite track of the year so far, hinging around a fairly simple verse-chorus structure that repeatedly explodes into arcs of electric blue. The other three tracks are no less vibrant, the sketch-like ‘Shutter Light Girl’ lasting for an all-too-short minute, and ‘Joy Construction’ loping along on a strangely voice-like hook. Sterling stuff.
Finally (and this is an end due to space considerations and concern for the reader, rather than a shortage of people to write about – this column could variously have included newish material from Clouds, Om Unit, Blue Daisy, Dorian Concept and FaltyDL, amongst many others), upcoming mutant Illum Sphere. His excellent Long Live The Plan EP has been on heavy rotation for the last couple of months, and out of the four artists covered here he probably reaches closest to the original definition of ‘wonky’. His beats are loose and slightly unquantised, falling just outside of the expected position to leave brief periods of hanging tension, and linking his music closely to US hip-hop producers like J-Dilla, FlyLo and Madlib. Constantly alternating between spacious and densely claustrophobic, tracks like ‘Never Lie Twice’ and ‘Chasing The Midnight Moth’ are sublime exercises in darkened atmosphere, and LA man Samiyam’s remix of ‘Psycho’ directly addresses the latent US-UK link.
As with all the above producers, Illum Sphere’s music is defined by creative use of synths, employing huge swathes of reverb and gauzy melody to carve out vast psychological spaces. Even as the use of wonky as a genre signifier has (thankfully) died, it’s refreshing to find so many artists employing similar tactics of deconstruction to recreate a host of influences from the ground up. In all cases the past is refracted through both the present and the imagined future, with results that are always intriguing and frequently breathtaking.