To say Michael Rathbun has been prominent in the past year would be an understatement, releasing on all kinds of labels big and small. It's primarily a good thing, considering he's one of the strongest personalities to come out of the whole footwork-cum-bass-music wading pool. His signing to Tectonic has perhaps been the most high-profile of all, and out of the deal comes the debut Distal album, Civilization, which surprisingly sees him abandon most of his uptempo hijinks for something a little more careful and methodic, easily comparable to Addison Groove's Transistor Rhythm.
What separates Distal's drum machine acrobatics from his Bristolian counterpart, however, is the detail and decor: from the get-go with "The Sun," which marches awkwardly like a Pearson Sound tune, the barebones wireframes are ladled with heavy doses of viscous synthesizer. It's a touch that makes otherwise ascetic tracks deceptively lush and dynamic—the plodding "House Party Five" is given a much-needed injection halfway through by heaping dollops of blurry synth.
In addition to the jittery footwork pastiche you would expect ("Drop Like This," "Boca Ratawn"), Distal minces in all kinds of hip-hop influences, from trap-rap snares to outright interpolation (the Lil Kim lovefest that is "Preach On Hustle"). Elsewhere he pays lipservice to lurching grime (the ominous LFOs of "Rattlesnake"), churning electro ("Venom") and schizoid breakbeat ("Around The Fire"). But for every moment that you could slap a genre tag onto, there are tracks that are completely unclassifiable, melding into the album's uniform palette of bare rhythms and iridescent synths but sticking out stylistically.
Bass music might ostensibly be present, but I've still never really heard anything like "Gorilla," which crawls menacingly on flat-lined bass synths before simmering with dissonant synths and computerized screeches. It's essentially black metal, both in sound and feeling. Meanwhile "Anti-Cool" moves with swooning synths, like a more solid-footed Actress track. "She Wears Pearls" closes out the album with an elegant melody underlaid by percussion that sounds like millipedes marching.
One thing that Distal takes unashamedly from footwork, even though the genre itself is only a small part of Civilization's whole, is the dislocated bass. The sometimes-threatening feel of a rumbling completely detached from the audible spectrum lends these tracks a physical power that's more implicit than aurally perceptible. This marks the difference between Distal and any number of producers who think footwork simply means repetitive vocals and herky-jerk drums.
Civilization is an odd album in a lot of ways. It feels curiously reserved even at its weirdest, and drained of colour even at its most melodic, which casts a shadow over the entire thing but makes it all the meaner in the process. It's an album of contrasts that can prove difficult and overlong one listen and breathtaking and fascinatingly complex the next, not a masterpiece by any means but a unique kind of impressive nonetheless.
Buy Distal - Civilization at
Tracklist: Distal - Civilization 01. The Sun
02. Feed Me
03. Preach On Hustle
04. Around The Fire
07. House Party Five
08. Drop Like This
10. Not Cool
11. Temple People
12. Boca Ratawan
13. She Wears Pearls
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