Black Sun Empire's fourth album begins with a dubstep track. In 2010, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise, but what is a surprise is the techstep veterans' sudden devotion to the genre. Though it's becoming increasingly standard for drum & bass producers to explore the lower tempo realms of dubstep, usually it's an excuse to unleash excessively wobbly and obnoxious midrange basslines—an extension of the maligned jump-up sector of drum & bass. There are a small number of names doing it differently, acts that treat dubstep as an outlet for more reflective and deliberate material. Calibre and Icicle, for instance, have been making dubstep tracks that act as downtempo distillations of their restless energies.
It's from this angle that the Dutch trio approach dubstep. On Lights & Wires, they don't just flirt with the genre, they embrace it. Instead of a few tokens, exactly half of the album's sixteen tracks are at dubstep tempo. Its sequencing alternates back and forth between dubstep and drum & bass. Initially, it lends the album a fraught, unfocused feeling, throwing the listener recklessly between extremes. Just as one slides into a dubstep groove, the album slams straight into a wall of ferocious neurofunk. Fortunately, after a few listens, it smooths out into a surprisingly natural give-and-take. The ride is interrupted only when tracks seem to end prematurely, as on the gorgeously spacious dubstep of "Black River Bay," which suddenly cuts out after only two minutes and is followed immediately by the album's most frenetic workout, "Extraction."
The way Black Sun Empire approach dubstep is refreshing: sometimes it carries the signature of their own particular brand of techstep, as on stunning opener "The 405" which channels the impact of its kick drums into quaking midrange basslines. Or on "Fuzzball" it's the reflective place of rest between relentless thrashing. On the drum & bass side of things, Black Sun Empire have—perhaps controversially, but I only see it as a positive—slightly subdued their straightforward bangers. There is still the familiar mix of distorted, stabby basslines and deafening drums as usual, but this time they sound more careful, more mature. The more silence they leave in between beats allows more room for delicate detail, and it adds an entirely new dimension to their otherwise permanently screwfaced d&b.
Track lengths are thankfully reined in, lending the album's cohesion another strong point: it's a long album regardless, but easier to digest as a result. Lights & Wires offers a much-needed starting point for dubstep listeners wanting to get into drum & bass (an angle which is usually reversed), and while the dubstep tracks are sometimes reduced to pseudo-interludes, they're proficient enough to capture the hearts of diehards. As drum & bass is split wide open by its more progressive sectors, insular neurofunk names like Black Sun Empire need to evolve or they will die. Transitional stages are never easy, but Lights & Wires is an admirable effort and the beginning of a promising process.
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Tracklist: Black Sun Empire - Lights and Wires 01. Black Sun Empire - The 405
02. Black Sun Empire - Chaingang
03. Black Sun Empire - Fuzzball
04. Black Sun Empire & Jade - Deadhouse
05. Black Sun Empire - Black River Bay
06. Black Sun Empire - Extraction
07. Black Sun Empire - Brommer
08. Black Sun Empire - Transmission
09. Black Sun Empire & SPL - Wasteland
10. Black Sun Empire - Inpeak
11. Black Sun Empire - Spork
12. Black Sun Empire & Nymfo - Kempi
13. Black Sun Empire - Dirty Friday
14. Black Sun Empire - Fever
15. Black Sun Empire - Mindslide
16. Black Sun Empire - Eraser