Al Wooton Looks Back to Go Forward on Witness

Son Raw goes in on the UK electronic musician formerly known as Deadboy's latest banger.
By    July 31, 2020

Steadily cranking out words in the margins, waiting for the beat drop. Please support Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

Son Raw is still holding out for Raggage as a genre name. Maybe not.

Tracing the arc of the UK’s dance music tradition over the past 20 years, some of the most interesting moments took place during the years immediately prior to new genres consolidating as distinct entities. There’s 2002, when emcee-led UK Garage became more riddim-driven, colder and accessible to a generation without studio equipment, before ultimately codifying into Grime. Dubstep faced a similar moment of flux, as early FWD DJs pushed dark 2-Step to its breaking point before the genre rallied around the Halfstep snare pattern. In both cases, producers and DJs were innovating styles at a furious pace, with potential genres like Sub Low and Breakstep ultimately getting left unexplored to their full potential. For me however, the greatest “what if” moment was the UK to Berlin axis of 2008-2009, when adventurous Dubstep and Techno DJs began splicing each genre’s DNA. This freed UK producers from the increasingly bro-centric demands of mainstream dance floors, while injecting a much needed dose of rhythmic variety to the catatonically stoned deep dubstep, and 4X4 dependent European Dub Techno scenes.

Sadly however, inertia prevailed in European Techno, while Dubstep fractured into camps dedicated to juvenile noise on one end, and careerist House and Techno on the other, with all sides losing out.

Al Wooton, previously known as Deadboy, has been a constant presence throughout this period, beginning with twitchy, Garage-inflected Bass Music anthems at Post-Dubstep’s genesis, euphoric collaborations with Murlo during the Grime revival’s peak, and even a vocal-led artpop album recorded during a sojourn to Montreal a few years back. Witness, his first LP under his own name, takes things full circle, imagining an alternate future where big room dance music’s steady pulse and Bass music’s populist noise both failed to exert a grip over the DJs and producers exploring Garage’s evolution. In their place, Witness proposes 2-Step rhythms and Junglist breakbeats galore, but also the ethereal pads and ambient washes that added life and colour to Techno at its most clipped and minimal. Even at its steadiest and techiest on standout A Clean Heart, Witness displays a disregard for convention, marrying the beat not to standard tech house fare but Burial-esque vocal manipulations straight out of UK dance music’s most liminal moments. Big room bangers these are not.

Instead, Witness’ brisk 8 tracks owe their power to thumping, warping sub-frequencies on the low end, and a crucial sense of mood in the upper register, with the spaciousness of dub’s FX gluing the center together. Though miles and several decades away from Larry Heard’s pioneering Deep House experiments and Photek’s intense D&B drum investigations, the early morning vibe these tracks conjure up echo those earlier attempts to find profundity in a night out, particularly once peak time has passed and the crowds are ready for more than simple bangers.

Released as the majority of the planet is unable to go clubbing due to the global pandemic, this championing of dance music’s more adventurous rhythms and moods serve as a strong reminder that what’s most at stake during this critical moment isn’t the survival of superclubs and multi-million dollar festivals, it’s the spaces and moments where human beings can present music that’s simultaneously cutting edge and purposeful. When we all emerge from this, it’ll be records like Witness, in alternative and smaller, safer nightlife spaces, that we’ll hopefully turn to. While the album may recall missed connections from dance music’s past, the ideas it combines and explores simultaneously feel like the dance floor’s best possible future.

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