Sd Laika: That’s Harakiri (CD, Tri Angle, April 2014)

Okay, I’m not a huge dubstep fan, but there seem to be some interesting people pushing the genre boundaries out there, and in a determinedly leftfield direction. Wen’s Signals would be one example, but this takes it further: there are tracks here which only seem to contain trace DNA betraying their origins. Like the Wen record, the production is excellent, and there are some jaw-dropping juxtapositions and sudden changes in direction. Take, say, You Were Wrong: it starts out with a big wobbly sublow, but then cuts to a combination of skittery drum machine and a chopped-up loop played, apparently, on an out of tune piano, and then the drums fade, leaving the piano meandering, then the bass comes back, then the drums, and the whole thing comes together in a joyful staccato syncopation. All this in three and a quarter minutes — the whole 11 tracks clock in at just over 32 minutes. It’s great fun and very clever. And yet, and yet… somehow the album as a whole doesn’t quite convince me, and seems destined to go down as a curiosity rather than a classic — as, in all honesty, the Wen record did. Perhaps the problem is that I’m not a huge dubstep fan, and I haven’t quite found the record to convince me.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Grime / Fwd.

Wen: Signals (CD, Keysound, March 2014)

First things first: This album has about the most fantastic, exciting production I’ve heard in ages. The beats clatter and stutter. The synths are choppy and fragmented, but melodic. The powerful bottom-end is taut and muscular, and deployed with restraint. For most of the record, vocals are sparsely used, and then in clipped, abruptly cut off samples. The whole thing has an awesome urgency to it. It’s the kind of music which demands to be played loud, and which never quite lets you relax. There’s a broad ahem sonic pallette at work here, with some interesting Asian influences (most obviously on the self-explanatory Persian, also in the Indian vocal snippets on Time), but in an urban-melting-pot way that’s a world away from ‘world music’. When we do get a fully-fledged vocal, the performances have a jaw-dropping athleticism (especially Riko’s on the closing track). I kind of worry that it’s impossible for me to talk about dubstep without sounding like the whitest person on earth, and/or like the middle-aged relative at a wedding disco saying ‘ooh, this has a good beat!’. But when it sounds this good, I kind of don’t care.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Grime / Fwd. (I think they made up Fwd… it’s a club, right, but I don’t think anyone else is using it as a genre…)

Akkord: Akkord (CD, Houndstooth, December 2013)

From the start, this record leaves you in no doubt what’s in store: darkly atmospheric, bass-heavy, righteous shenanigans. Things rumble and clank. There is distant howling and tribal chanting. The beats take a while to kick in, but when they do they are a masterclass in what you can do with not much more than a buzzy bass and a snare or two. It’s mostly a skittering, dubsteppy affair, although it does seem to switch from 2-step to four-on-the-floor from time to time. There’s an ominous, restrained power here. If I have one criticism, it’s only that by the end I wish they’d allowed themselves to really let rip just once.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Techno.

Senking: Capsize Recovery (CD, Raster-Noton, September 2013)

It is well known that a good Jeff Mills set is like being on a giant space ship made out of techno. Well, a good Senking record is like being on a giant submarine made out of dubstep (and possibly filled with insects). The awesome buzzing, the gorgeously precise, skittering beats, the sonar pings… pretty much everything I said about his last album, 2010’s Pong, applies here. I do miss the spooky vocals of tracks like Breathing Trouble, but then I love a lot of the subtle melodic flourishes in the plinky plonky high-end here. Like the best submarines, this is superbly engineered and great fun to ride in.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic (and they pre-emptively plagiarized my submarine simile, too).

Senking: Pong (CD + Windows/Mac Game, Raster-Noton, September 2010)

Fantastically good. Jens Massel has pulled in elements from a range of styles: off the top of my head, I’d include bleep, dub techno, glitch, dark ambient, breakcore, and sublow — or at least, I think so… I am terrible at genres. What’s certain is that he’s made them work together to form a coherent whole, and created a sound very much his own. As you’d expect from a Raster-Noton artist, the production is excellent, crisp and spacious. The tracks cover a variety of styles, from moodily atmospheric to snarlingly propulsive. I am on record as a fan of a good buzzing, and there are some earth-shakingly awesome examples on display here: the stand-out tracks for me are the growling Painbug In My Eye, which pairs a sonar ping with a superb over-driven squelch, and especially Breathing Trouble, in which a skittering beat of ticks and pops is almost eaten by the huge wobbling bass sound, punctuated by a haunting echoey vocal sample (“great day, isn’t it?”). Please play this on a decent stereo: your ears will thank you, even if your blood pressure does not.

This comes with a second disc containing a Windows/Mac game called almostPong. It is a 3D version of the classic racket game, music and sound effects taken from the album. It’s a nice idea, and it looks and sounds great. Unfortunately, I am terrible at games, and found playing it a rather frustrating experience. Ah, well.

I bought this from Juno. They call if leftfield, whatever that means.