In 2011 dubstep fans find themselves in a scene where the sense of exploration is still strong and music is becoming much more than just a soundtrack for the weekend. The blueprint for dubstep has always been pretty vague- keep the tempo around 140 and use lots of bass. The best producers gain kudos not for simply making bigger bangers but for bringing new ideas to the table and reinterpreting old sounds. There seems to be plenty of artists who, rather than adding to the vast amount of dubstep tracks in circulation, are more concerned with building new sounds and contributing something meaningful to the scene.
Its been heavily documented that producers have been experimenting with different tempos- dropping down from 140 to housier rhythms. Now that they’ve gotten the hang of switching to different beats artists have been experimenting with different moods. In the words of one Jack Dunning “Dubstep is just a skeleton to throw loads of influences at and see what happens” and it’ll be interesting to see where Jack aka Untold goes on his forthcoming album. The producer behind such heavy hitters as Anaconda and Stop What You’re Doing has already said that the LP will be more of “a listening album” than some of his previous work which seems to sum up the sentiments of a lot of producers at the moment. Artists like Ikonika and Blue Daisy manage to keep one foot on the dance floor and other in your living room, simultaneously moving your feet and your mind.
The producer who I think captures this ability the best is Shackleton whose music never seems out of place in any surrounding. The entire Skull Disco back catalogue is perfect home listening and each release is a cafefully constructed piece of art from Shackleton’s own unnerving epics (Blood on My Hands, Death Is Not Finnal) to Appleblim’s deep bass voyages (Vansan, Fear). Shackleton’s own music is complex enough that it rewards careful listening and at the same time simple enough that it can be enjoyed in a club. His music is immensely danceable and the recent mix he did for the Fabriclive series demonstrates how powerful his live show is. Made up of entirely his own tracks the compilation is more a live recording than a DJ set and his tracks are woven and manipulated as only the creator could. Even at home or listening through headphones you really can get a sense of the apocalyptic dread and the many other moods which permeate through his work. Thankfully he’s been busy making mixes for the Red Bull Music Academy and Big Shot Mag, each with huge variation and scope. His send off gift to Mary Anne Hobbs is well worth seeking out and no doubt his upcoming releases on Honest Jon’s will solidify his reputation as one of the greatest experimenters of the genre.
Another experimenter who is quickly leaving his mark on the scene is James Blake who released a trio of game changing EPs last year. His highly anticipated LP is a testament to the combined power of voice and subbass but also represents a new direction for his sound. Being picked by the BBC as one to watch for 2011, the 22 year old Londoner has found himself in a unique position- on the cusp of achieving mainstream success with what is essentially a very inapproachable album. However by focusing more on song writing and vocal performances Blake has lost many of his fans who were attracted to his more electronic sounding productions.
Whatever your opinion is of Blake, its interesting to see that there is an audience open to deep frequencies and new ideas. In fact there are so many new ideas emerging from the scene that no-one seems certain what to call the music anymore. Journalists seem to like the expression post-dubstep while many artists prefer to describe their sound simply as just “bass”. The fact that the highly debated term “post-dubstep” even exists shows that dubstep has outgrown its previous expectations and producers, new and old, are exploring new avenues that challenge listeners. It’s a common complaint to hear producers criticise overly produced, overly compressed, polished dance music in favour of music that accepts the limitations of machines and uses this vulnerability to explore new moods and structures.
One of the reasons for this shift in sound and attitude might be because musicians influences are becoming increasingly diverse. It’s becoming less surprising to hear artists citing J Dilla and My Bloody Valentine in the same breath as DMZ. Of course these are producers who had access to music on a scale never before imagined. When an entire discography of a band is just a few clicks away it becomes easy to immerse yourself in any kind of musical background and it isn’t surprising that other aesthetics should creep into the music.
It’s easy to see the indie connection with Mount Kimbie whose Crooks and Lovers was one of the best albums of 2010. The album channels dubsteps obsession with depth off the dancefloor and into a more reflective place. The combination of organic and synthetic elements gives their sound a dreamy and hypnotic feel not too different from the ambient come-down music of the early nineties rave days. During their live show the duo use guitars, samplers and tonnes of reverb to reproduce their songs; a set-up which ends up resembling experimental bands like Animal Collective. That is until you feel the bass and the beats that remind you that you’re definitely in dubstep country.
I could continue all day about the different artists who are doing new things with the loose template of dubstep but half the fun is discovering these producers for yourself. Every few months someone proclaims the genre has died but time and time again the music mutates into a new sound, energised by visionary producers. Needless to say 2011 is a great year to be on the receiving end of so much creativity, both on and off the dancefloor.