Critical has released quite a few compilations of upfront material in the past, but its latest is in part a retrospective affair, chronologically going from 2003 to 2011 and painting an enviable picture in the process. While the label has never really had its own distinct roster, the makeshift family Mowlavi has built up over the years is nothing if not impressive; from Calibre to Breakage to Break to Cyantific, it reads like a who's who of drum & bass. Kicking off with bona fide classics in the junglist ivory tickling of Calibre's "Rockafella" and Breakage's stomach-churning "Staggered Dub," the compilation's first half powers through at blistering speeds. But even at its heaviest, on Critical Sound the label rarely resorts to cheap techstep tactics or aggro violence, and the closest it comes (Break's dizzy, frantic "Cold Sweat") still feels miles above the din of contemporaries.
Kasra has steered the label more and more toward the minimal and melodically focused side of things, and the compilation's midsection betrays an inspiring present—and future—for the imprint. A four-song stretch beginning with Rockwell's "Underpass"—where the aerodynamic beat sounds like it's ripping through the spacetime continuum—traverses a significant amount of outside influence and approach, showing that it's not just Autonomic bringing new sounds into the genre. Total Science's "Redlines" steals the compilation, taking the Calibre formula of intricate breaks and delicate melodies adds one of Riya's most stately vocals to date, and emerges with an instant classic in the process. The frenetic tabla of Stray's "Can of Cancun" and Synkro's subaquatic halfstep in "Sketch"—both exclusive new tracks—show that rich textures are just as much of a concern as breakneck beats and tugging basslines.
Curiously, the compilation's back end sees the label hurtling right back down the techstep wormhole. But, once again, it's done with care: Enei's "Forgive Me" is brooding and angry, but expressed with utmost clarity, while FD's gridlocked "Third Glance" is wrapped in sumptuous strings and synths. Bladerunner's "Back to the Jungle VIP" proves there's life left yet in loud, tunneling racket. Of course, if it's presumptuous to name your label Critical, it's downright arrogant to call your compilation the Critical Sound of Drum & Bass. But with such a near-perfect balance of refined orthodoxy and open-minded experimentalism, who's going to argue?