State of Bass, 2011 (Feature)

As a year that saw the 10th anniversary of the crucial FWD>> club night – one of the genre’s original breeding grounds – 2011 seems as better time as any to take stock of dubstep’s growth and progress by evaluating its current state, and looking to where it might go from here. In the last ten years, the genre has made stars of some of its earlier innovators; seen its influence spread globally; won both critical and commercial acclaim; and made bass addicts of countless fans who continue to show reverence to its culture and history as it matures. Just to note: it could be reductive to use the term dubstep when describing its present state due to the way the genre has split and diffracted, and the catchall term “bass music” is perhaps more useful as a reference; allowing deeper analysis of the various alternative styles on which to draw that producers have available to them.

Under this umbrella description are a growing number of artists that use dubstep as one of the many compositional tools at their disposal, and 2011 has seen a further continuation of bass music’s fascinating creative possibilities. Having permeated the charts in a commercial and garishly polished package (as so much underground music eventually does), dubstep’s pioneers were left free to experiment, evolve, and continue to perpetuate forward motion, and some of the year’s best releases serve as audio brochures for quite how much the music has developed and where it could go from here.

As a primary example, we have the stunning self-titled debut from Bristol-raised, Berlin-based singer/producer Emika. Cramming everything from dark, brooding synth-pop, to hard and metallic grime tones, to deep and shuddering dubstep productions into 12 consistent and challenging tracks, the Native Instruments sound designer even touches on her classical piano training for the romantic miniature of closer ‘Credit Theme’. The result is breath taking, and exposes every facet of Emika’s Bristol background (the tail-end of trip-hop was obviously a big influence, as was time spent with Peverelist and the rest of the Punch Drunk stable) as much as the current osmosis of minimal Berlin techno she now enjoys. If Emika’s literal and stylistic voice represents dubstep’s future, it’s in good hands.

Some of those that have been immersed in bass music’s deeper reaches for some time now also returned in 2011 for another rewrite of the rules. Pinch & Shackleton, two of sub-bass led musics most respected practitioners, joined forces to produce a spectacular inversion of Shackleton’s Skull Disco sound with another of this year’s self-titled albums. ‘Pinch & Shackleton’ is terrifying in both mood and intricacy; its spook conjured from cavernous reverbs, quivering bass and carefully manipulated tones and samples. Loops take a back seat, as the pair layer mutating percussive ideas and eastern instruments into somehow dense-yet-infinitely-spacious constructs of sound, even at one point setting a preaching vocal sample into phase with itself to demented effect. The release acts as one of the clearest demonstrations yet as to how vast bass music’s possibilities are, and, along with Zomby (who’s ‘Dedication’ album from this year shares Pinch & Shackleton’s ghostly undertones), the pair guide the way for those producers looking to branch out from the more garish, club-orientated end of the bass music spectrum.

Vocalised ‘pop-step’ took on a new level of sophistication this year too, represented in different ways by SBTRKT’s self-titled ‘SBTRKT’ and Katy B’s ‘On a Mission’. Both these releases (as with the Emika album mentioned above) showed that the classic verse-chorus structure could be utilised within the genre: proof that a good hook works just as well over the pulsating bass of the former’s Little Dragon-featuring ‘Wildfire’ as it does for ABBA’s entire back catalogue. ‘On A Mission’ places Katy B into a long-exercised tradition; heading from the underground to the clubs in a way not too dissimilar to how sometime collaborator Ms Dynamite did with garage before her, while SBTRKT augmented his highly considered productions with vocals, touring the tracks with Sampha in an impressive live show.

The exact genre of James Blake’s debut full-length is a point of contentious debate – especially in its differences to the brilliantly twisted instrumentals of his earlier EPs – but only the true purists would deny that the rumbling sub-frequencies and imposingly slow tempos owe some debt to dubstep’s imperious wobble (I personally hear an innovative yet entirely un-dubstep variation on the singer-songwriter tradition), hopefully seeing a quick disappearance of the cringe worthy ‘blub-step’ tag.

There was even room this year for an EP from the genre’s most esoteric member, Burial, who’s style is so distinctive that it sits in its own little corner, quietly peddling its yearning muffle in a way that consistently takes the breath away. Burial has long recognised dubstep’s endless potential for conjuring moods, and ‘Street Halo’ proved that his unique sound is still without equal.

So dubstep, and bass music in general is in prime health, safe in its position as a forerunner of musical innovation. It may have become unrecognisable from its dub/2-step crossover beginnings, its borders stretched and constantly tested (the 8-bit beeps of Rustie’s ‘Glass Swords’ and Kode9 & Spaceape’s smoked out monster ‘Black Sun’ would seem far removed from the genre to dubstep’s earlier creators), leaving nothing but anticipation for the fruits of its next ten years.

Read this review in context over at HYPONIK

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