- A winning debut album from the Edinburgh grime producer.
- Of all the chattering voices on Joe Powers' debut album, one quote, from an old episode of The Twilight Zone, stands out: "This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one." It's not a bad way to think of the young Scottish producer's music, where sounds and samples that call back to older eras of UK dance music jitter in uptempo patterns that likely reflect growing up amid the hectic babble of social media. The Edinburgh producer cherry-picks ideas from the last ten years of grime and UK bass music and puts them together in idiosyncratic ways. Colourful grime synths, chiptune and video game samples are all repurposed into tracks that rarely sit still. The mix of familiar sounds and snippets of intimate conversation makes for dance music that can feel deeply affecting, even as its spastic rhythms keep the energy at a constant high.
For anyone who followed the mutations of UK dance music after dubstep, there are many bits of Insula that should trigger fond memories. There are shades of Ikonika's early 8-bit synth work ("Apple Juice" and "Scotch Precog") and found-sound effects sharpened into jabbing drums ("Hoax Nos Trinit") à la Jam City. But Powers' music isn't about nostalgia—at 21, he's too young to have ever been a part of the scenes he references. (He called the album Insula as a nod to his musical isolation.)
"I reckon nostalgia is killing us all," he recently told The Wire. Instead of looking back with rose-tinted glasses, Powers overloads you with sounds, some of which may sound familiar, especially if you spent the late '90s or early 2000s in front of a PlayStation. "I like to... attack people with information and allude to various things at once," he added, "to confuse people, and to fuck up your nostalgic brain with overlapping stuff."
The 160 BPM tempo is key to this. Not only are the sounds flying at you from every which way, but just as he references one thing, he throws in something else totally unrelated to it. "A Like Ye" features instantly recognizable snippets from Dizzee Rascal's "I Luv U," but its wobbly, punch-drunk sound has little else in common with early grime. "Kontinuance" contrasts MC samples and dogs barking with a bright, happy-go-lucky melody.
"Dopamine" is a great example of how Powers builds tunes: the drums are unpredictable, but the bassline and melody remain constant. Even at the most chaotic, there's a hummable melody to keep it all grounded. Powers has taken a style that has long evoked dark and paranoid moods and made it friendly. The omnipresence of vocals on the album only add to that effect, a mixture of recognizable TV voices as well as intimate conversations recorded by Powers among friends.
In some ways, Insula is a contradictory album. It's both futuristic and deeply familiar. It's neither divorced from the past nor wedded to it. The LP suggests a different path. In recent interviews, Powers has pointed to a few other producers working in a similar vein—Polonis and Rapture 4D among them—but he's also said he feels there's no real scene to which be belongs. Insula could mark the arrival of a new one.
02. Apple Juice
06. Scotch Precog
09. Punishment Exercise
10. Dish Washing
12. Future Headache
13. Hoax Nos Trinit
14. Evil Spirits
15. A Like Ye
16. Mourn Non Did