February 8, 2011

Sach O was too young to go rumble but would have probably really liked Jungle.

Chillness is a volatile commodity. After a great run in the 90s, (Trip-Hop! Acid-Jazz! Ambient! Chill-out!) the bottom fell out around 2002 as electro-trash took center stage in a vain attempt to convince the world that everything was ok and the best way about post-millennial dread was to dance it off. Since then there’s been a resurgence, mostly in the form of Yacht-Rock revivalism but the last place you’d ever expect to find laid-back vibes would be the Drum & Bass. Derided for nearly a decade as macho, aggressive and devoid of ideas, the last 10 years haven’t been kind to D&B with critical support all but disappearing in the wake of the Jungle era.

By 2008, things had reached a nadir: ultra-fast, simply programmed noise for drunken bros to let off steam without any of the sense of space and atmosphere that defined Jungle’s glory days. It’s from that bottoming out that former Bad Company producer dBridge and production duo Instra:Mental began to rethink Drum & Bass, bringing in outside influences, slowing things down to manageable tempos and generally doing the exact opposite thing everyone else was doing. It worked, with last year’s Fabric:50 compilation making a seismic impact in the EDM world, attracting disillusioned junglists and dusbteppers tired of wanton aggression but also Techno fans tiring of 4X4 minimalism and conservatism. A year later, dBridge’s Exit Records takes it a step further with this 22-track compilation, a solid summary of the movement’s strengths but also a warning of its potential Achilles heel.

For a comp with contributions from over 20 producers, Mosaic’s sound is surprisingly unified: stripped down, ultra-precise, futuristic and rigidly robotic. Had the word “Techno” not been invented to describe music coming out of 80s Detroit, it would have been perfect for this stuff. The sound’s secret weapon is its adoption of half-step BPM switches, alternating the tempo between high-speed intensity and sudden release. More percussive than instrumental Hip-Hop, the beats here feature a relentless forward-drive no matter the tempo but never seek to overpower through debilitating speed. The results work as eyes-down dancefloor killers for the adventurous and dark-minded but also as more-ambient material for bus rides and wintery walks around the city: Drum & Bass you can actually “listen to”.

Music can rarely grab your attention AND sink into the background so effectively but the Autonomic Sound is so deceptively adaptable that it can soundtrack both a study session AND a night out on the town with equal ease. dBridge’s “Forgot What I needed to Forget” and Skeptical’s “Another World” land on opposite ends of the spectrum but the common DNA is evident: drums and bass yes, but also a futuristic frigidity that’s immediately inviting to anyone living the tower-block lifestyle. That one feels like laid-back make-out music and the other paranoia for a speed comedown feels inconsequential in light of musical commonalities.

On the other hand, no matter the variations, Mosaic’s overall consistency can get mind numbing. Clocking in at over 2 hours, it’s easy to get lost in here and eventually it all starts to sound a bit identical. Thankfully, dBridge’s ear is unparalleled and on an individual basis, nearly every track is fantastic but the potential pitfalls a new “chillout D&B” are already visible. Having avoided the speed trap, let’s hope no one here mellows out too much and sinks into the couch because the last thing the world needs is a “Buddah Beats” revival. Apparently Instra:Mental’s forthcoming album will be avoiding D&B tempos entirely so perhaps I’m worrying for naught but it needs to be said: too chill can be just as bad as too aggy.

Rarely are musical movements and subgenres so radically opposed to their parents as Autonomic has been so far. From aggressive noise to ambient atmospherics, it’s hard to imagine a more welcome take on what seemed like a lifeless genre and hopefully the influx of outside ideas can encourage music lovers from outside the D&B circle to give this sound a shot. It’s worth noting that along with dBridge and Instra:Mental’s contributions, some of the best tracks here come from Dubstep producers Distance and Skream, apparently relishing the sense of freedom and space afforded to them by a sound that hasn’t yet calcified into defined boundaries. As for the best tune, the prize easily goes to Future Garage beatmaker Synkro whose “Open Arms” stands as one of the most beautiful tracks I’ve heard in forever: a shimmering take on Hyper-Soul that strikes the perfect balance between electronic precision and human emotion. If Autonomic keeps drawing on such outside influences and moving forward, I see no reason we won’t be enjoying Mosaic vol 2 and 3 a couple of years down the line. Let’s just avoid sinking into the couches, shall we?

Mosaic Vol 1 CD by Exit Records UK

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!