Son Raw likes ye. No, not the album.
Some electronic music albums create imaginary spaces, but my favorite records belong to very real ones. It’s easy to envision post-reunification Berlin in the grimness of the city’s early techno, just as it’s impossible not to imagine a sweaty house party while twisting your feet to Chicago Juke. London, meanwhile, has developed a cottage industry of night bus music and grime instrumentals dedicated to painting audio imagery of the city’s late-capitalist existence.
I must admit however, that until I heard Proc Fiskal’s debut album, Insula, Edinburgh remained a blank spot. While Edinburgh always had a rude dance music presence, it never had music describing the city’s streets or even its dance floors. Insula fills this void, and brilliantly at that.
A twitchy, hyperactive record refracting second-hand memories of London grime into a record about young adulthood in the north, Insula is alive not just with the sounds of the city, but also its unique voices and accents. Colliding IDM rhythms, rave tempos, synth pop tenderness, and urban aggression into an idiosyncratic whole, it also serves as a proof of concept for grime’s newest mutation, one occurring as both London emcees and the media are moving away from the genre.
The key to unlocking Insula lies in the samples. Though ostensibly an instrumental dance record, the album is liberally peppered with vocal snippets, found sounds, bits of static-ridden commercials and TV shows, telephone tones, messenger app pings, and even a brazen grab of R Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).” Individually, this makes for some clever nods and winks, but taken together, the use of found sound serves to bring us into Proc Fiskal’s world and remind us of our own.
The specificity of Edinburgh speech is in constant collision with the universality of the online soundbites that inhabit all of our lives, and these two poles serve to make the album a warm and welcoming listen, even as we’re introduced to a place many of us haven’t visited. At a time when many electronic producers seem determined to win our hearts through ostentatious sound design at the expense of songwriting and purpose, Insula’s relatively simple electronic bleeps work because they are imbued with meaning, scoring direct hits on the brain’s pleasure centers.
Speaking of songwriting, Insula wins on this front, too. While previous Proc Fiskal material functioned as DJ food—sparse and aggressive—here he leans into grime’s more emotional side, invoking the genre’s interest in pentatonic scales and even referencing Dizzee Rascal’s “I Luv U” with a track called “I like Ye.”
The record also benefits from an uncanny sense of speed, rushing along at an even faster tempo than most grime, giving the whole affair a futuristic, cyberpunk vibe that crosses the aforementioned emphasis on Edinburgh with hints of an imaginary Asian Megapolis à la Neuromancer. Not since Slackk’s Palm Tree Fire has a grime record gone for the heartstrings so brazenly to such successful results, and it’s in large part thanks to this dive into melody and harmony that the record succeeds as a headphone listen.
Warm yet cold, familiar yet alien, Insula is the quintessential Hyperdub record, and a triumph for Proc Fiskal, who at 21 still has plenty of room to grow as a producer and songwriter. It also proves that there’s plenty of energy bubbling in instrumental grime today, if you know where to look. Finally, it makes me want to visit Edinburgh. The department of tourism should license Insula.