When Ralph Cumbers, aka Bass Clef, appeared as a last-minute replacement for King Midas Sound at a show near London’s Liverpool Street station, I, in my complete and utter ignorance (having never heard of him) assumed he was a relative newcomer roped in from nearby East London hipsterville (in my pitiful defence, Cumbers is indeed based in the East End). From the moment he leaped on-stage and chucked out his funky, infectious post-dubstep, interspersing his manic beats and churning grooves with astounding manipulations of the trombone, I realised what a dunce I was. Subsequent delving into the man’s history has only served to underline my ignorance, for Bass Clef, though now in London, has long been a mainstay of the electronic scene that initially emerged from Bristol and has since done more than most to envelop and even pollinate everything good in modern British dance music.
Bass Clef may have started out as part of Bristol’s dubstep brigade, but like his peers such as Peverelist (whose label Punch Drunk has released Reeling Skullways), Pinch and Kuedo, he has shown a wonderful knack of using that as a base from which to explore new, increasingly futuristic, styles and sounds. Reeling Skullways features very little of the deep, cavernous bass that characterises dubstep, with Cumbers instead focusing on repeated synth patterns and measured, powerful beats to pitch the album into territory that borders on a lot of electro styles without ever getting stuck in any specific (sub)genre. Perhaps the title of the second track, ‘Hackney-Chicago-Jupiter’ encapsulates Reeling Skullways best: this album was born in Hackney, but it takes the sounds of London and aims for space, Sun Ra-style, with a cool stop-off along the way in the US, just to absorb a bit of Footwork and Detroit techno for the spaceward journey.
With so much going on, Reeling Skullways could have easily been undone by a lack of focus, but here Cumbers’ remarkable talents really shine. Even as he’s throwing together stripped down percussive sounds with breakbeat rhythms and glossy synths redolent of Rustie, his hands are tight around the reins of his creation, so that every element dances elegantly with those around it. Synths chime in call-and-response patterns (‘Embrace Disaster’), propulsive basslines kick in and recede around metronomic techno beats, and at all times you feel the energy and enthusiasm of Reeling Skullways’ creator course through every track, those same qualities I was astounded to witness at the aforementioned gig. Even when dabbling in moody atmospherics (‘Keep Hoping Machine Running’) or edgy minimalism (the somewhat brittle opening to ‘Electricity Comes from Other Planets’), he never dwells so long as to inhibit the album’s celebratory flow. At the same time, the shifting evolution of tracks such as ‘Electricity Comes from Other Planets’ and the twelve-minute ‘A Rail is a Road and a Road is a River’ show that Cumbers is not afraid to experiment with jarring, unexpected textures and sounds, but each such experiment serves to accelerate and enhance the thrill that follows when his pristine beats and head-shaking melodies kick in.
Bass Clef’s strength is that he doesn’t allow his obvious ability to channel genres and ideas to intrude on his love for a cracking melody. The nine tracks of Reeling Skullways feature synth patterns that wouldn’t be out of place on Cluster’s Zuckerzeit, such is their supple charm, but at the same time are impeccably tailored for the dancefloor, and I’d almost like to use this review to urge all DJs out there to pick up this album. Each track, bar the ambient opener, shakes with high-octane energy, all the while brimming with ideas, beauty, stylistic flourishes and unexpected sleights-of-hand. In an age when so many modern electronic artists strive so hard to be seen as ‘serious’ that they end up sounding sterile, and mainstream dance music can be so generic you want to tear your hair out just to relieve the boredom, Bass Clef shows that you can have an abundance of thought behind what you do, and still deliver something that hooks into the listener’s neo-cortex and won’t let go until he or she is shaking ass under the strobes.