It's here! Mala has made a new record. The largest single statement of his career, in fact—a distant first ahead of 2010's six-track mini album Return II Space. It's no normal album, either—rather, a collaboration with a host of Cuban musicians which took place across two visits to Havana, orchestrated by Gilles Peterson and released through his Brownswood label. The DMZ co-founder has long been one of the few to continue to find fresh angles on the dubstep template, somehow managing to retain both the ethos and the sonic characteristics of the sound. Nor has he, in the process, come to be seen as an ageing dinosaur in a mammal's world. Mark Lawrence's position in the musical landscape is singular and enviable—and this album will doubtless have a significant impact on how that position changes in the years to come.
Of course, the risks inherent in a project like Mala in Cuba are glaring: that Lawrence would produce a coffee morning-friendly album of mildly kitschy Buena Vista Social Club-goes-electronic pastiche; that the meeting of minds and cultures would result in a lumpen Frankenstein's monster of a record; that the whole thing would never see the light of day at all, given the complexity of the project and Lawrence's preternatural caution in all things relating to his musical output.
The faithful will tell you that these pitfalls never posed a serious danger to a producer of Lawrence's calibre. And—whether miraculously or otherwise—he seems, largely, to have sidestepped them. Stitching together lattices of samples drawn from improvised sessions with Roberto Fonseca's band, Lawrence has managed to breathe new life into his sound, often reaching beyond the surface of his source material to explore the subtler stylistic characteristics that animate it—micro-rhythmic inflections, minute expressive tics, offhand melodic flourishes. The nature of Lawrence's working method—manipulating pre-recorded samples, rather than engaging in any more dynamic interaction with live musicians—naturally limits the extent to which he can "collaborate." But within the boundaries of his chosen techniques, Lawrence has approached the project with rare sensitivity and thoughtfulness.
There are, though, a handful of moments which feel just a little bit too easy. The appropriately named "The Tourist," exhibiting a kind of 2D cut-out of Caribbean nonchalance; "Change," creamy-smooth to a fault; and "Curfew," where a carefree piano riff plays the fall guy for an eyes-down half-stepping rhythm, exploiting the kind of pantomime contrast which threatens to blast all the subtlety clean out of the project. The vocal turns, too, don't appear to play to Lawrence's strengths. Dreiser and Sexto Sentido rein in the producer's exploratory tendencies on "Como Como," while Danay Suarez's outing on closer "Noches Sueños" seems to inspire one of his more turgid productions. But the album's brief introduction proves that the sun doesn't necessarily sap Lawrence's strength, its airy chords riding lightly over a churning, chest-crushing sub line in a way that pirouettes neatly between threat and invitation.
Elsewhere, there are enough screwface moments to keep the masses happy. "The Tunnel" is the most brazen, its serrated bassline recalling that long-departed moment when "wobble" was an untapped resource; but there are subtler pleasures, in the throbbing "Changuito," or "Ghost'''s gyrating cross-rhythms and deliciously sinister atmospherics. Most interesting though, are the beats that maintain their light-footedness— "Cuba Electronic," for example—allowing the mouth-watering complexity of those interlocking polyrhythms to drift seductively into the foreground.
Granted, Mala's purview here is, by definition, narrow—and by about two thirds of the way through this 14-track, hour-long album, most of his tricks are familiar. But there's no denying that Mala in Cuba is a statement of consummate mastery—of a form, of a tempo, of a set of tools—shaped by the implacable creative imagination of one of the finest producers of his generation. The newfound scale and nature of this release might well signal a new phase in Mala's career—but wherever it takes him, you can be sure he'll be around for a good while yet.