Mark Smith profiles the Bristol producer who's achieved a singular union between techno and drum & bass.
WeTransfer supports Breaking Through. Download a track bundle from Pessimist that includes "Balaklava," "The Woods" and "Astrous."
Music tends to break into cliques and niches. Whether you're talking about metal, classical or jazz, sub-genres proliferate, creating barriers between styles that are often arbitrary at best. Dance music takes this to extremes. Its genres and scenes splinter and divide, developing their own languages and cultures. Despite their genetic likeness, they often become isolated islands whose inhabitants are largely content to remain among their own kind.
Kristian Jabs is an exception to this rule. He's in Berlin to play a set as Pessimist at a Blackest Ever Black night, along with other sonic anomalies Silvia Kastel and Ossia. That's hours away, however, and we're repeatedly breaking off our interview for cigarettes and off-the-record chit-chat. There's a tinge of celebration in the air. It might be that the Bristol native is enjoying the charm of the dilapidated Kreuzberg bar we're in. But it could be because he took a risk that's starting to pay off.
While the safe course of action for a dance music artist is to stay in your lane, Jabs has developed a penchant for drawing outside the lines. To follow his sound, he risked disconnection from an audience, promoters and labels. But what he stood to lose in infrastructural support he made up for with a lingua franca that reaches further than his mother tongue, drum & bass, ever could.
Jabs recently released an album on Blackest Ever Black, highlighting his potentially broader appeal. Label founder Kiran Sande puts him on a lofty pedestal. "It is hard to think of a producer since T++ that has so radically, and successfully, reinvented/deconstructed the jungle-techno relationship," he says. "In fact, Pessimist makes drum & bass work as techno."
There's been no shortage of producers trying to bridge the gap in recent years. Both genres historically share a taste for the intellectual, a conceptual edge that never attached itself to disco or house. Both had pretensions of turning club music into high art. Yet despite the shared qualities, they can make for surprisingly unhappy bedfellows. Modern techno-drum & bass fusions often simply place the tense, cavernous sound design of the former over the high tempos and rhythmic syncopations of the latter. The best of it is genuinely thrilling. But much of it feels curiously safe and too perfectly executed to make a big impression.
Along with the likes of Felix K and DB1, Jabs gets beyond a simple fusion of two aesthetics. In the last two years, his music has stood out for its dogged minimalism. His best tracks contain just a handful of elements. They're often restrained, simply letting elements enter and exit without resorting to pyrotechnics. In signature tracks like "Pagans" and "The Empty House," the tempo and sub pressure of drum & bass are present. But it's removed of substance and refilled with an inky negative image. Tension is kept on a tight leash—the linear structure and horizontal sweep of techno is used to patiently bring tracks to the boil.
"The music isn't necessarily structured like techno," Jabs says. "This slow structural development just gives you a type of creative freedom. It's about the way it progresses and builds and builds and builds. Then it can simply explode."
The high frequencies in his tracks are rounded off to emphasise layers of crackle and wide plumes of bass, which makes his productions shudder under the strain. I tell Jabs that the subs in "Balaklava" sound like they're crumpling the bass bins. Jabs lets out a pleased laugh, saying, "Every time I've played it out at a club the room literally shakes."
His self-titled album passes through a range of tempos with ease. When I ask about dance music producers having trouble working outside of their regular tempo zone, he smiles and says, "Who gives a fuck if it's a different tempo? I'm a musician, not a drum & bass producer."
It wasn't long ago that Jabs was just breaking into the drum & bass scene, much less mastering its relationship with techno. He could have reached drum & bass's pinnacle, having released on Samurai, Renegade Hardware, Ingredients and Cylon at a relatively young age—his first record came out when he was 18. He actually broke through in drum & bass around five years ago, but it's only since last year's heat-seeker "Balaklava," one of RA's favourite tracks of 2016, that he's become better known outside of the genre.
The thing was, Jabs was never truly comfortable with what lay ahead of him. He couldn't shake the nagging sensation that he was on an isolated island. "It's almost as if people outside of the drum & bass scene understand it better than the people within it," he says. "They've lost touch with the roots of what it is. It's like Tony Blair and New Labour. He deliberately lost track of the party's heritage."
One peculiarity of drum & bass is the technical demands it places on producers. "It's a culture where engineering is put first before creativity," Jabs explains. Where house or techno artists can get by if the vibe is right, drum & bass can prioritise a clinical mix down, sometimes in lieu of interesting ideas. "You show your music to other producers and they'll be a lot more intrigued by how you engineered the snare or how you processed the kick. Admittedly, I used to be the exact same way."
Yet early drum & bass was cutting-edge and extremely inventive. Its creative sampling and impossible rhythms gave it a dexterity and energy that is palpable even now. But it was decidedly raw music, and with the coming of the new millennium, some of drum & bass became immaculate to the point of being sanitised. The same thing can be found in other types of dance music, but drum & bass was an emblematic case.
"Take old Source Direct," Jabs says. "It wasn't perfectly produced at all. It's not badly done by any means, but by modern standards it's not perfect. I think maybe because the sonic foundations of the scene were so rough around the edges, it spurred people on to make it really polished."
Jabs was shaped by these technical demands, and spent much of his youth learning synthesis and acoustics in a music technology course in Cornwall. But having learnt how to make sonically perfect drum & bass, he now rejects its strictures completely. He experienced first-hand what labels did and did not want to release. Copies of old ideas refitted with modern production made the grade. Tracks exploring new ground were often rejected. Again, the same conservatism marks many fields of music, but the values and assumptions of drum & bass forced Jabs to choose between playing by the rules or venturing out on his own.
"Balaklava" was apparently passed on by a drum & bass label because it wasn't mixed for maximum impact. Yet its gutted midrange and decaying high-end are central to its broader appeal. Combined with its minimalistic drum programming, it could join dots between industrial, ambient, dub techno and more besides. By developing his own sensibility, Jabs was potentially limiting his opportunities to be heard. It was by no means certain that he would go on to reap the rewards.
Jab's first exposure to the genre was through what he now jokingly refers to as "mainstream underground" drum & bass. Rollers with a ubiquitous two-step beat and roaring basslines were the name of the game. "[This sound] may still be going," Jabs says, "but in terms of how it influences music as a whole, it's absolutely irrelevant and basically dead."
His early productions could hardly be described in these terms, but they do have the clinical feel of 21st century drum & bass. Things changed when he returned to his native Bristol from Cornwall. He was handed a flyer on his first day of university for a party called Abstractions. "Before Abstractions, the only old-school productions I'd hear being played was some stuff off the Wormhole album by Ed Rush & Optical. Maybe some Dillinja—he tended to cross over. But it was super rare to be out and hear a Source Direct tune. The only place I'd hear it was at Abstractions. Overlook, Clarity and Loxy were drawing on what we like to call 'the real shit.'" Jabs went to Abstractions with a friend and gave a CD of his productions to Nick Callaghan, the party's founder. Through Callaghan, he met Tom Cooper and later the three of them formed Ruffhouse, which developed into one of the most exciting production crews in modern drum & bass.
"We all shared a similar view of drum & bass," says Jabs. "Nick really taught me a lot about its history. I was very into it but he's a fair bit older. He gave me a CD wallet of old-school stuff and said, 'Just listen through that.' I think it was a big building block for what I started doing."
The germ cell of the present Pessimist sound can be heard in Ruffhouse classics like "The Foot." There's the billowing clouds of abstract effects, the bed of eerie ambience, the gliding rhythms, the lack of snares, but most of all, the steadily percolating structure. The key difference is that Ruffhouse productions tended to be more aggressive.
After joining Ruffhouse in 2012, it took another couple of years for the Pessimist sound we recognise today to emerge. The contrasts between his two releases on Samurai show the change in process. Canyon, from 2012, has the crisp high-end and up-front snares typical of much drum & bass. 2015's The Woods / Lead Foot, on the other hand, doesn't drive forward so much as twine into tightening spirals. The production is still rendered in high definition but there's greater emphasis on grizzled textures. It kills you by slow constriction rather than a venomous bite.
By the end of 2016, the transformation was complete. Paian and Balaklava dispensed with much of the high-impact percussion of his earlier productions. Although there are still some gnashing moments—"Orphic" for example—it's the soberly constructed tracks that stay with you. The increasing restraint paradoxically resulted in a more imposing presence. Paian also saw Jabs escaping 170 BPM, signalling that a drum & bass framework could no longer contain his ideas.
Kiran Sande of Blackest Ever Black was originally interested in releasing Ruffhouse's music. Jabs wasn't even sending him his productions, but it was another Bristol producer, Rhythmic Theory, who made the introduction, leading to the release of Balaklava on Blackest Ever Black's "delinquent dance floor" label A14. Following the EP, Jabs had a spell off work and wrote tracks for another 12-inch release on Blackest Ever Black. He sent eight productions to Sande, who suggested releasing them as an LP. Without intending to make a larger artistic statement, Jabs' musical development inadvertently made it so. He jokingly says making the record "didn't feel like any work whatsoever. I didn't have in my head, Oh god, I've got to write an album."
That the tracks on Pessimist were written in a matter of weeks suggests a fearsome work rate. But Jabs says that the fatigue caused by his day job means he's only writing intermittently. "I'm tired a lot of the time," he says. "But when I get the chance to get in the studio, I come up with things quite quickly. If someone writes something decent on a guitar, it doesn't take them a couple of weeks, right? It should be the same when you're writing on the computer. It should come out naturally and emotionally. When I look back on the tracks that I worked on for weeks, more often than not they're the ones where I failed to lock down a vibe."
This sense of immediacy is Pessimist's greatest strength. There's a coherence and fluency to it that brims with self-confidence. "A few years ago I had to fit a mould," he tells me. "Now I'm lucky enough to have this really amazing group of people who understand what I do and are willing to release whatever I make. I never ever had that before." It's a powerful place for a promising artist to find themselves in. Now that he's being recognised by labels who are excited about his work, he has a support network to take greater risks and pursue his sound, wherever it may lead.