- ‘Take a glance over your shoulder/you might see what’s comin’ next’. So spits the Spaceape in ‘Glass’, introducing the sense of time-warping dread that permeates the paranoias of ‘Memories of the Future’. I line up my own intro with the Spaceape’s to stress a parallel reminder – when you think about the ‘dubstep phenomenon’, you’ve got to remember to hark back to its incubating moments: a time when the millennium bug was about destroy us all, when drum’n’bass was still crossing into the tech/house groovespace otherwise worshipping on the one, when two-step garage was already mutating into the early dubstep of Horsepower Productions and their quickly-changing Tempa.
Then came grime, which to me at least, didn’t pay (as the blitheringly gushy reviews promised it would). In their search for ever-more ‘street’ expressions of authenticity, a whole bunch of people seemed to be fixated on praising the bodgy sounds of hashed-up kidz mashing the keys on some stompbox-filtered Casio in a South London tenement. I say this by way of conceding, openly, that I didn’t get it.
But, in line with the principle of mutation avowed by the Hyperdub collective, the sound changed and became something rather more interesting: all those stoned teenagers learned how to use their equipment and play more than a one-finger melody, and grime’s anger, hate and anxiety emerged out of the spotty bong mist fused with the sophisticated rhythmicity learnt from ‘dubstep mark one’. Doubtless, this is an outsider’s genealogy, but (speaking as someone from a techno viewpoint) there has been a sense of imminence, of infection, of mutation into ‘our’ stream, to the point where neither Andy Stott’s ‘Black’, nor Villalobos’ remix of Shackleton’s ‘Blood on my Hands’ is any kind of conceptual leap from the other side of the stream.
What techno and dubstep share, fundamentally, is an imagination, one that (more than anything) comes from reflections on urban decay and projections into science fiction, with both inter-penetrating to generate sources of inspiration and terror. We are a long way from the ‘gay gospel’ of life-celebration which backgrounds house music (but is itself a defiance of disease and discrimination). Contagion riddles the riddims of ‘Memories of the Future’, too: from the technoid boom-bap of ‘Victims’ to the brilliant interpretation of Prince’s ‘Sign ‘o the Times’ (‘Sine’) and the feverish ‘Augustus Pablo’s season in hell’ nightmare of ‘Kingston’. If inertia creeps, then the Spaceape seethes with infectious malevolence.
Two factors count against the linear listenability of this release: first there is the intensity of the atmosphere and the brilliance of the lyrics, which (on the headphones) wear me to a raw panic and despair before the last beats threaten to land. The second is that this is a collection of several brilliant singles interspersed with a few less impressive tracks, not an album (even though the mood is consistently, relentlessly bleak). Loaded onto an mp3 player and popping up on shuffle, a lot of the material is strikingly good, but listening to the whole thing start to finish can be a depressing chore, especially on a moody Tuesday. How much dread fills your quota? My (deathly) cup runneth over. In many ways, Skream’s eponymous longplayer, released in the same month, is both the counterpart and antidote to this potent strand of the dubstep virus – with its big, major-key jump-ups and smile-inducing sub-rattlers, it is in every way the goofier, happier, younger sibling of this dark, menacing cluster of glooms. But here I am criticising this work for the very qualities that make it outstanding – whether they appeal to you will depend on how much smoke and sleep you’ve had.
11 9 Samurai