|Breaking through: Artifact
A new generation of Bristol producers is emerging. Andrew Ryce meets one of the most promising.
When Artifact's "Archaic Line" came out at the beginning of this year, I wrote that "it feels like one of those moments where an artist is finally realizing his potential all at once." Narratives rarely come this convenient, but sometimes, it just happens. Ryan Bonfield is the latest fresh face to emerge from Bristol's dubstep depths, with a twitchy technoid brand of bass music compatible with both modern deep house and the old Chicago stuff. He's not strictly new: he's been producing with fZiro as Portrait for a while (though nothing yet has been released), and he's had digital-only releases on labels like Car Crash Set, but 2012 feels like the moment at which he's coming into his own, with "Archaic Line" leading the way.
Bonfield, speaking from his adopted Bristol hometown, seems to agree. "In hindsight, I do kind of wish I didn't do all these releases. Nothing against the labels, I just don't feel like I was ready," he says, and one listen to "Archaic Line" or its dizzy flipside "Deserted"—with their lithe and snaky basslines, complex but toothsome percussion and muted-yet-memorable melodies—is enough to see why. Artifact's sound is one of the most confident "bass music" and house collisions yet, melding the analogue dust of old deep house, the bass-wise presence of dubstep and the intimate intricacy of tech house.
Bonfield grew up in the southern English town of Swindon, nestled between the bigger metropolises of Bristol and Reading, where he developed an early relationship with... heavy metal music. "I was in a semi-successful metal band, touring the UK, even released an album," he recalls. He insists his early metal background had a positive effect on the way he understands and writes rhythm—"certainly the way metal breaks down and then picks up again a few times across a track, I like to do that with my stuff, using the rhythm of my bass to drive a song and create movement, using triplets, and so forth"—and you can hear what he's saying in a track like "Deserted," which swells and throbs threateningly, slamming down hard after periods of silence in a form that feels awfully similar to dubstep.
Like so many others in the mid-'00s, Bonfield caught the bass music bug. "The drum & bass thing got old pretty quickly," he admits, "and I remember I went to Motion before it was the big club it is today and hearing two guys playing dubstep." Suffice it to say, his allegiances changed instantly. But for anyone into new, exciting music, his hometown of Swindon wasn't the place to be; Bonfield decries its almost complete lack of production scene, and claims its good clubs have long since closed down. Where to go, then? Bonfield chose Bristol—"we always went out there on the weekends anyway, so it just made sense"—a densely populated and thriving scene of artists and producers making considerable waves not only in dubstep but also in its mutant forms, the kind of hybrid Bonfield would later articulate as Artifact.
"Bristol was crucial for my musical development—if I was in Swindon, I'd still be making dubstep!" he reflects. "A lot of the artists and music are in a two or three mile radius, so you bump into each other a lot and hang out, and the venues are pretty close. Through that you connect with more people who are into different music, so that's why you get these 'fresher' sounds coming out of Bristol. Everyone's got their own take right now, no one sounds like anything else—I think Bristol's kind of always been like that, going back to the whole trip-hop thing, and there's the Jamaican element too, that comes out in the music, there's a lot of dub nights as well." Even though it's crowded, there's little competition, he insists: "the big guys aren't afraid to talk and chill with the smaller guys, which says a lot about the quality of musicians the city is creating... all these young guys breaking through at the moment, Ziro, Hodge, Tessela, Vessel and the whole Young Echo crew, are creating such good stuff it drives you to keep trying harder and harder. But not to outdo one another, because you feel inspired by your peers."
The other thing Bristol had in spades—as opposed to Swindon—was house. And lots of it. Even when the city was going through its big dubstep phase, it had the Futureboogie crew, a group of promoters, DJs and producers who have been throwing house-oriented parties in the port city for over a decade but have only now started gaining outside recognition. They had as big an effect on Bonfield at the time as they did the rest of the city's musical makeup. Nonetheless, it still took a while to find a signature sound: "I made Artifact to break away from my dubstep past, to try and create something where I could be more free," says Bonfield. "I hadn't heard lots of stuff at the time though, so some of my output was very strange to say the least, kind of plucking random ideas from my head."
It was, again, that collaborative virus that spread through Bristol that helped things along: "Linking up with my friends Hodge and Ziro, swapping tracks with them, really developed my sound, and after about eight months I scored my first release." Even then, Bonfield wasn't convinced of himself, however, insisting that his newest material is his proper debut: "I was making anything from R&B to garage and not really having a distinctive style—always just chasing one."
A job opportunity last year saw Bonfield move to a small German town outside of Cologne, where the relative seclusion allowed him to focus. "When I was in Germany, I developed a sound that I really feel is my music. I try to bring techno and footwork into it, and that bass-heavy garage vibe as well. I've tried to keep the percussive elements I've always had, that's always been a run-in element for my music, the percussion…. Bringing in the skippy vocals and the dark, filtered stabs, and the triplet beats, to create a really mad groove."
Having relocated back to Bristol at the beginning of 2012, Bonfield finds himself in a prominent position in his city's dance scene following his Deadplate release. He's got a free single coming out on Local Action followed by a proper vinyl EP later this year, and his collaborative Portrait project with Ziro—"halfsteppy, floaty chords, 110 BPM kinda stuff, 'nice' music"—will see releases on Pollen and Well Rounded Housing Project. What else in the cards for Artifact? More tunes, more gigs. With a string of dates around the UK and his first non-German foray into the continent upcoming, Bonfield's DJ career is looking healthy. "I tend to play a lot of stuff that isn't released—it's fresher and more exciting. I play a lot of my stuff, Thefft, Ordnance, Ziro, the people I trade tunes with. Throw in some techno and garage, that's the vibe I go for, and I try to keep it as dark as possible." That's not altogether a bad way to describe his music in general, and with a sound approachable from so many angles he makes for a good poster boy for Bristol's emerging new producers. "I wouldn't really call it house music. I don't call myself house music. I guess just bass music, because I just bring everything together."