Over the course of its seven year lifespan, London's Critical Recordings has been a consistent source of goodness, flying the flag for quality drum & bass amidst soaring levels of mediocrity. A label that has never succumbed to rank and file orthodoxy, its last annual compendium, All Sounds Electric Two, painted a picture of relative health, and alongside Soul:r's impeccable DAT:MUSIC II, helped disseminate a sound that had little to nothing in common with default tearout fare. Much the same can be said of its latest full-length offering: a shiny double CD affair that chronicles the highs—and, to a lesser degree, the lows—of the genre in a year that has seen an increasing division between the rowdy, floor-shaking morass of the mainstream, and the deeper, subtler, altogether more intriguing mutations that lie at its periphery.
Studio heavyweight Break kicks off the first CD with loungy junglist vibes, engineered, typically, to gut-punching perfection, but a little too polite by his standards. The same goes for Serum & Bladerunner's gooey "Images"—which farts around aimlessly as it tries (and fails) to generate momentum—and Calibre's pedestrian "Tru Beat," yet another cute but unremarkable offering from a producer capable of far better. Things pick up—and how so—with the stunning "Underpass," Rockwell's debut production, and, for my money, about the freshest take on percussive bass music since Untold's digression into 2-step la la land earlier this year. A luscious blend of woozy bass, shimmering pads and taut, elasticised percussion, it's a world away from the pieces that precede it—rhythm and melody here displace the customary tenets of breaks and bass—and a leap into what feels like genuinely uncharted territory. Bravo.
Sabre keeps things deep (and decent) with "Leaf," a cold, skeletal take on guitar-driven jump-up—like the x-ray image of something much bigger and nastier—but the pattern is broken with Illskillz's crass "Black Rabbit," a cacophonous amalgam of booming drums, trashy brass and migraine-inducing synths that, needless to say, will have your average main room gurn-fest pumping. SpectraSoul's "Wedgehead" returns to sparser pastures, and does a good job of doing what most of the London duo's work has, to date, done (namely: stripping things back and funking things up), while Jubei takes care of the closer with an expertly pitched dose of streamlined liquid techstep. Fans of Intalex and D Bridge take note.
If CD One was an up-and-down affair, CD Two is its steadier half-cousin, following a generally deep, "heads"-friendly course throughout. The opening track—Ramadanman's gorgeous "Reclaim"—is another giant fuck you to the mainstream sound, melding skippety drums to bone dry subs in what's a welcome return to the 170 BPM fold from the Hessle man. It's given a run for its money by boss-man Kasra's sumptuous "Perception"—his debut solo offering after years in the game—and Stray's mind-bending "Timbre," which sounds like a bastardized, uptempo take on Shackleton before strobe-like flashes of euphoric jungle rip into it like concentrated gunfire. That it's the album's third unnervingly good debut only goes to show how perceptive (ahem) Kasra, and Critical, can be.
It's not all gold, though, with less-than-impressive contributions from newbies One 87, Triad and Ratio—all struggling to forge an identity—and a lukewarm return for ex-Hardware operative Genotype, back on the case after a six year hiatus. His "Never Stop" is by no means the shabbiest piece on display, flexing some hefty low-end muscle as it rumbles along determinedly, but set against the album's more adventurous numbers, comes off sounding just that little bit dated.
Indeed, what, more than anything, this LP serves to highlight is the growing void between those sticking to a relatively traditional framework, and a younger, braver, more rhythmically promiscuous gaggle of producers who're unafraid to push drum & bass out of its comfort zone. Taking their cues from dubstep, techno, hip-hop and beyond, their approach is refreshingly open-minded, unencumbered by the sonic parochialism so endemic to the scene but true to its junglist roots. And if drum & bass is to continue to reaffirm itself as a vital force in underground dance music (rather than mere arena-packing), this can only be a good thing.
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Tracklist: Various Artists - Critical SoundCD 1
01. Break - People Are Different
02. Serum & Bladerunner - Images
03. Calibre Feat Lariman - Tru Beat
04. Rockwell - Underpass
05. Sabre - Leaf
06. Illskillz - Black Rabbit
07. Spectrasoul - Wedgehead
08. Jubei - Outcast
01. Ramadanman - Reclaim
02. Kasra - Perception
03. Enei - Ten Years
04. One 87 - E3
05. Stray - Timbre
06. Triad - La Galma
07. Sabre & Kasra - Designated
08. Technicolour - Freedom Theme
09. Ratio - Transmission
10. Genotype - Never Stop
11. ARPXP - Surfaces
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