The Digidub Conundrum

blodclaat

It’s mildly interesting, if not a little disappointing that the dubstep massive at large has started leaning so heavily towards the structures and codes of digidub. I haven’t listened to any “proper” digidub in years (the Zion Trains, Irration Steppas et al. and to be honest I’ve got no desire or interest to) so I can’t say how (or if?) they in turn have taken anything from dubstep?

But then as long as the producers continue to puff away on the weed I suppose this is a given, especially as digidub (in recording and over the sound system) was always a surgical tweaker and booster of a potent THC buzz. I always considered it the more beery and lary cousin of original ‘Roots’ if you like. Something to wash down with copious red stripes, several fat ones and then get your skank on, preferably on one leg.

When I was a regular down at the Brixton Rec. Centre Aba-Shanti parties, (and in the days when the air was so heavy with ganja smoke you could almost cut it with a knife!) I always used to walk home in the small hours reeling from the bludgeoning I had received from essentially incredibly cheesy, repetitive and almost kindergarten-simple melodies played out sometimes on what seemed to be the most obvious cheap midi brass pre-sets: a thousand digital off-spawn imitations of Augustus Pablo’s innocent melodica lullabies.

The records perplexed and irritated me. Clearly they worked, the dance floor would go off, multiple rewinds, the full clash vibe etc. I’d hunt out the odd tune on vinyl here and there and low and behold, out of the sound system/party context, they sounded just awful! Plastic, tinny, unimaginative.  A lot of it childishly simple techno 4/4 “steppers” (and a dedicated reggaehead mate of mine once told me he didn’t rate Irration Steppas because “they’re too techno!…got no roots”). So what was going on in the translation from vinyl to these speaker stacks? Was there some secret harboured by the digidub producers that only they knew about? enabling them to fine hone their tracks for maximum dance floor devastation? Were the irritating and easy to criticise characteristics a deliberate disciplinary rigour in themselves? only for the headstrong producer able enough to hold the line in the studio? I never worked it out myself.

Redstripe

For sure I hear a lot of this probing and affiliating going on in current dubstep now (and it has to be said the likes of Coki were always flirting with that borderline irritating silliness back in the day). Deep Medi, Mala & Co. can obviously be singled out as overt collaborators in this area (see their Weekender party last November in Bristol with Jah Shaka and Channel One) and where they go others will inevitably always follow…. Releases are now touted as “steppers” as a (surely not new?) style itself, but what I don’t get is tunes labelled as ‘old school’ if they get dark and supposedly ‘dungeon’? as on Compa‘s latest 12″ particularly the tune “Noctule” (see the Fatkidonfire.com review). To be honest I had no idea there were days when ‘dungeon’ was considered an aesthetic in its own right, but then what do I know? It was/is surely more interesting than a shift to digidub formulas?

Likewise Sleeper‘s latest release is an almost wholly digidub affair and an almost complete abandonment of his earlier filtered sci-fi vibes, although much, much heavier and more confident and skillful than Compa in my opinion. And then who can forget Jack Sparrow‘s unapologetic populist smasher “Hold and Pull” last year? (also no coincidence on Deep Medi). I have to concede, if that tune doesn’t have you spraying your can of ‘stripe all over the place in sheer abandon there’s no hope for you!

Headland

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What a find. I love it when I hit the jackpot in my digging! This man is totally on point with his vibe. Fresh out last month, ‘Break Off’ is pure restrained intensity and a very deep space mission. ‘Steady’ on his Soundcloud page is, if anything, even better and more reined in? It needs a release soon.

This is almost a new industrial paradigm mercifully casting off the old EBM aesthetics? Cyclical springs, pistons, clanking, steam, pressure, furnaces burning in the night. Our old friends are still there but this is as futuristic and striking as the opening scenes of Bladerunner back in the day and absolutely what we should be striving for sonically right now. No bravado bullshit, ego-less. Just technical and cold and dripping with hydroponic bass groove.

Pinch: Screamer

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Oh Pinch, Pinch, Pinch. Must you? A genuinely fresh, interesting, deep and gnarly hybrid tune (as one would expect from the Don) but utterly ruined by Riko Dan chatting utterly generic pseudo-gangster, juvenile soundbwoy, testosterone shite over the top. Name me one word or phrase he “spits” that we haven’t heard before?? Why? Why? Why?

Hold tight for the instrumental….

ARtroniks: Run Dem

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Something I used to love about old school hardcore was the use of heaven/hell, light/dark, silly/nasty juxtaposition. It always worked on a crowd under the influence. The cloying, nagging, diva sample, wailing some banality that in a fevered state might have seemed profound, the cheap piano vamp putting hands in the air – and then the drop straight into some hellish triple reversed filtered mentasm/dominator/hoover whatever. Who knows how many brain cells were lost to this nirvana?

“Mischieved” (no full clip out there?) took me straight back to that era; a repetitive, looped, falsetto female voice trills away in the upper reaches before a truly ugly and lumpen, prolo jackboot bass crushes it with its heel and locks into a juddering metronomic groove. Expert heaven and hell dynamics.

“Run Dem” is equally fine but with a slightly more generic beat (the snare cracks exactly where it should, a Ragga sample says “Run Dem!” before the drop…you get the drift) and to be be honest there’s hardly enough difference in the original and the Mershak remix; a bit gnarlier maybe but kind of a pointless exercise.

ARtroniks/Minzo: Unknown Forces

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It’s almost refreshing, with all the other straining and striving going on from many other producers, to hear someone who just plain knows exactly what he wants to sound like, knows exactly how to do it and just puts his head down and throws down a mechanoid, cold, banger. No chinks in the production, no amateur edges, no indecision, just smooth and blank as a Great White’s predatory glide. In fact, one barely feels the influence of human hand or touch at all it’s so icily tech. But that’s no surprise as ARtroniks productions very rarely waver from top notch on that front.

This has all the required bleakness and paranoia for late night headphone spliff sessions too. The ARtroniks remix wins by a margin by ratcheting up the sawing and grinding bass ingredients, making it even more robotic and alienating.

Acre: Better Strangers

acre

Previously touted as something of a hybridist, “into hyper-modern sound design and bastard club rhythms”, this full-length nevertheless has all the sonic likeness of someone hopelessly chiselling away in a barren landscape in the Klondike Gold Rush. Desperately hoping to find that seam that reveals riches but ultimately slowly dying of cold and starvation.

I’ve invested legitimately in all previous Acre releases and don’t doubt his integrity, but one desperately longs for some release from his purgatorial, digital, flint-stoning – just one track that finally runs away with itself, carried away with a little joy that just plain cuts loose, however lumpen! Nothing here ever really feels like more than an experiment or a grimly defiant primitive sketch. Flashes of brilliance catch in the light only to disappear in the sweat of his labour like gold fever.

“Dek U” could just as well be re-named that; it’s a disturbing, hypnotic focus on a barren seam. “Automatic Fire” likewise – running low on provisions he ekes out the calories on a thin gruel of digital dross and pounds the face with blistered fingers and worn out tools. The brown note a constipated, dehydrated, thin curled stool of desperate bass.

And so the album spasms on it’s feverish deathbed as all is lost. Memories filter in without invitation. Chip tunes? skwee? disembodied garage diva voices? (“Holding Hands” is truly awful….God! just end it now) it all gets thoroughly unpleasant (just as we all know it will be! maybe a major artistic achievement then?), until “Better Strangers” sounds the funereal lament and rolls the credits. Dig the grave deep so the wolves don’t get my bones.

One for the grizzled backcountry men then? or armchair adventure travellers? Just don’t expect any comfort or pleasure.