Dubstep might have roots in vocal genres such as grime and garage, but up until now producers have generally shunned the human voice. Pinch doesn’t seem to have received the memo. Opener ‘Brighter Day,’ a reworked version of crowd favorite ‘Qawwali,’ sets the agenda: as the track’s foreboding atmospherics seep into the speakers, the distinctive voice of Juakali – resident MC at NYC’s Dub War parties – blasts through the mix, proclaiming, “Put that negative energy aside, rude boy!” The reverb-drenched rhythm and leviathan bass hits might, dubstep-style,boot you in the chest, but it’s the positive vibe of Juakali’s Jamaican patois that reinvents the track, lending it a cautiously hopeful optimism.
At first, it’s jarring to hear vocals as dominant as these take the spotlight away from the domineering bass, but Underwater Dancehall convinces by exploring the voice’s possibilities. ‘Get Up’ juxtaposes techy beats and huge washes of cinematic strings with an over-the-top vocal as indebted to '90s vocal house as it is to Mary J. Blige, while on ‘One Blood, One Source’ Rudey Lee turns in a set of silky harmonies that recall Horace Andy’s collaborations on Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. Vocals in dance music often signal a move towards the commercial, but somehow these collaborations never come across as dubstep-lite, rather the overall effect is to make Pinch’s production more inviting.
Behind the voices, the beats are Pinch’s best work to date. His spacious aesthetic here sounds more refined, focusing in on a vaguely tribal sound that falls somewhere between Shackleton’s Middle Eastern hand percussion and Kode9’s electrified productions, garnished with touches of jazz and techno. ‘Airlock,’ one of the album’s three instrumentals, is easily Pinch’s strongest track to date, pitting a loping beat and skittering cymbal work against flickering guitar samples and pads that would make DeepChord blush. The rest of the album is similarly minded, foregoing the abrasive approach taken by producers like Vex’d and Distance and embracing a more lush and listener-friendly aesthetic.
Underwater Dancehall is one of the first releases to really push dubstep forward this year, representing a bold artistic statement and expanding the genre’s sonic palette. The vocals, of course, may be something of a contentious issue for the dubstep faithful, but to keep the purists from crying foul, a bonus disc of instrumental versions is bundled with the package. But regardless of which way you prefer your beats, Pinch’s album is the sound of dubstep in 2007, just as Burial’s debut was the sound of 2006. Let’s see where 2008 leads.