What is the "Critical Sound"? Quite simply, there isn't one. Critical's releases veer from out-there abstractions to straight-up bangers to minimal rattlers, traversing too many drum & bass subgenres—and there are a lot—to count. So maybe we should just start instead with the question "why critical"? "A combination of reasons, really," answers label founder Kasra Mowlavi, "One, I like the word. It has several interpretations. Two, I wanted the label to grow into something that would be viewed as important, a key piece of the puzzle."
Critical is all about Mowlavi. Founding the label off of his own back, the charismatic Londoner remains its sole benefactor and its driving force. "I ran an experimental tape label when I was 15, inspired by the underground DIY ideals of people like Sonic Youth and a lot of the American indie labels," explains Mowlavi. "I've always had an interest in the processes involved in releasing music: the choosing of the tracks, the artwork, the packaging and how to effectively get the message across to people. Basically a lot of bits that people find boring."
Label head Kasra.
The label boss stubbornly refuses to align himself to any one style or sound, sharing a certain indefinable quality that binds together the label's diversity in a similar capacity to labels like Hyperdub or Planet Mu. The only constant is the BPM. What Critical does, rather than seeking to define or profile a certain scene, is simply put out the best—the critical records, so to speak. "I feel we've been good at adapting and putting out some of the more exciting music the scene has to offer... The label's been going a few years and the music has changed. Some areas of drum & bass hardly exist anymore, whereas the funky techno-inspired side, which died off a few years ago, is having a massive resurgence." Critical was birthed "[so I could be] involved in a scene I love. I was inspired by labels like Metalheadz and 31," Kasra reminisces, "Those are key to me; during my formative years they blew me away, and the crux for me that it was never one genre. Just good music. I wanted a similar ethos—drum & bass sometimes suffers from subgenres, and I'm not interested in that. For me it's purely defined by tempo."
The key to Critical's continued success is that Kasra "strike[s] a wicked balance between giving people what they want, retaining commercial viability and stepping outside the box... being innovative. This is why one moment they'll release something like the Sabre LP and another month a universally caned dance floor smasher like Enei's 'Cracker,'" according to recent label signee Stray, whose psychedelically iridescent "Timbre" also showcases just how far the label can stretch its borders.
Despite the claims to diversity, a look back at the earliest days of the imprint reveals a propensity towards straightforward breakbeat tunes, something which would only begin to melt away as the label evolved. That transformation arguably began to happen right around the time of its ninth release, Calibre's "Rockafella." "The Calibre release definitely felt like a landmark—as an unknown entity, it was always hard to get established producers to take me seriously," explains Kasra, "Drum & bass at the time was pretty much a closed shop, but Dom [Calibre] seemed keen to support what I was trying to do. It certainly helped put the label on the map." As a result, the label soon found itself releasing music from the most prominent names in underground drum & bass music, producers like Breakage, Break, Spectrasoul and Survival. Critical has never been about name-dropping, however, and one of the most unique things about the label's history is the peppering of unknowns and newcomers mixed in with scene stalwarts.
Recent years have seen Critical nurture that new crop of talent like Ill.Skillz, FD and Hydro, helping to re-energize a scene long on the verge of stagnation. The sound Critical pushes these days is tough, smart, alternately brutal and gentle, and almost always primed for the dance floor. As a result, the label's past run of three years has arguably been its best and most inventive, as new blood mingles with old.
A few of the photographs that featured in Sabre's A Wandering Journal.
Aside from the music, one thing that sets Critical apart from many of its drum & bass contemporaries is its commitment to packaging. Critical's visual dimension is as painstakingly considered and pored over as its aural. "I probably sound like an old romantic, but taking a heavy piece of vinyl out of a good quality sleeve is all part of the magic of vinyl. The focus for me more than ever is to offer something over and above the record stuffed in a white disco bag," Kasra claims. Whether it's the warm, abstract orange of the label's early days or its recent sleek, modern black-and-white sleeves, Critical releases have a way of standing out on shelves. Asked about the artwork, Kasra explains "I've tried to keep it as simple as possible. I'm not a massive fan of the drum & bass cliches—some sort of robot or dark cityscape or graffiti—I take more inspiration from a combination of the clean lines of techno mixed up with some of the rough edges of underground guitar and experimental music"—a description that often sounds like it could fit the label's music—"I spend ages choosing types of card, finishes, colours—much to the annoyance of those in the production end of things!"
For proof, you only need to look to the label's first artist album, Sabre's A Wandering Journal. RA's Max Bacharach described it last year as "a sprawling neo-d&b concept album... replete with its very own website and scores of accompanying photos." It took Critical eight years to release its first album for a reason: "I'm keen to make the artist albums a special event, and before Sabre I hadn't really found anyone I wanted to do one with," according to Kasra. Journal extended the label's commitment to presentation and physicality to an impressive new extreme. Musically, it was about as far from the dance floor as you could get in drum & bass, a narrative album of short, fastidiously focused tracks full of tiny, ricocheting sounds, wide-set soundstaging and cinematic melodrama.
Kasra's full support of Sabre shows just how far into abstraction Critical really is willing to push itself, and the album was yet another triumph for the label, making waves beyond the city limits of drum & bass. "It was certainly a departure from the kind of music Critical had put out until then, but I think the album reflected a vision both Kasra and I share that sees drum & bass escaping the totality and restrictiveness of dance floor-centricity," theorizes Sabre. "We weren't trying to challenge this scene's dance sensibility. It was simply about maximizing the potential of the long player format and the creative freedom it offers. We're both still huge champions of dance floor music, but I think we both wanted to do our bit to evolve a genre we're deeply passionate about."
Yet another landmark in Critical's evolution was 2009's Critical Sound compilation, which debuted bass music juggernaut David Kennedy's experiments at 170 BPM (Ramadanman's "Reclaim"), and featured the first salvo from drum & bass's hottest name, Rockwell. While the London producer has since signed exclusively to Shogun Audio, he made a splash with the mournful "Underpass," throwing deep, melancholic chords on top of constantly fluctuating breakbeats. This year's ARIA EP—the final release from Rockwell before his withdraw into the Shogun camp—is a stunning bit of sound design that saw no shortage of excitement from press, fans and contemporaries.
Critical has rarely dabbled in locking up producers on an exclusive basis, but that will change very soon. "We're definitely moving to make certain artists exclusive, with Russian producer Enei being the first of these," says Kasra. The imprint also recently launched a coveted residency at London's fabric. When asked about the proudest moment of Critical's lifespan so far, Kasra responds "Critical hosted Room 2 at Fabric a few weeks back. Room 1 was the Pearson Sound Fabriclive launch and Room 3 was Autonomic. It was an amazing evening, the whole club was packed with music lovers all night and every set I heard was great. The reaction to our room was something I'll never forget." That Kasra's most cherished moment is so recent, coming nine years into his career with Critical, says something about Critical's impressive longevity. But it says more about what's coming next.
Download: RA Label of the Month 1105 Mix: Critical Recordings
(right click + save target as)
Filesize: 99.6 MB
Synkro - Dwelling (Critical)
Rockwell - Rain (Unreleased)
Rockwell - Underpass (Alix Perez VIP) (Critical)
Dub Phizix & Skeptical - Four (Critical)
Sabre, Stray & Haolgenix - Untitled (Unreleased)
Vicious Circle & Jubei - Deliberate (Critical)
Foreign Concept - Mob Justice (Critical)
Jubei - Untitled (Unreleased)
Dub Phizix - Break It (Critical)
Enei - Stonehead (Critical)
Foreign Concept & Bringa - Cemetary (Shogun)
D Bridge, Fierce , Break & Nico - Galleon (Quarantine)
June Miller - Snapcase (Critical)
Enei & Riya - No Fear (Critical)
S.P.Y. & Kasra - Surface (Critical)
Marcus Intalex - Hot Hands (Soul:r)
Basher - Transmission (RAM)
Spectrasoul - Organiser (Critical)
J Majik & Wickaman - Old Headz (Metalheadz)