A Quietus Review: Islands by LV & Josh Idehen (October 3rd, 2014)

Over the years, we’ve become used to grime and dubstep as vehicles for a portrayal of the UK’s urban hinterland: the tough inner-city estates, the lonely bus rides through decaying suburbia, the overarching threats of gangs, police and drugs, the heady rush of post-dancefloor euphoria giving way to end-of-the-night melancholia. These have come to define our city nights like a tapestry culled from the minds of millions of young revellers and city dwellers, a collective database as indefinable and romanticised as it is visceral and universal. In grime in particular, MCs spit, yelp and bellow sketches of their day-to-day experiences, allowing a tiny insight of their lives before the songs fade and the shaking bass ushers us towards the dancefloor.

It’s rare that an artist will open up to the extent that it feels like you’ve been given access to his or her deepest thoughts and feelings. The aforementioned universality detracts from the personal beyond the fleetest of glimpses, but Josh Idehen seems to take little interest in convention or stylistic mores, and his is a vision more coherent and formally narrative than any other MC I’ve come across, at least in these days when the solo underground grime artist à la early Dizzee or Wiley has taken a backseat to (often striking) collaborative efforts such as The Bug’s Angels & Devils and ubiquitous chart-topping bubblegum-hop. Idehen comes across on Islands as a romantic, a drifter and a story-teller, a narrator transmitting those same dirty roads, reverberating clubs and cramped council flats to us via his own experiences, emotions and musings.

In production duo LV, Idehen has chanced upon the ideal collaborators. Routes, their debut album together, was pretty much a portrait of London in music, very much in the vein of Keysound label owners Dusk and Blackdown’s Margins Music, with Idehen’s vocals pared down to soundbites dropped around LV’s post-dubstep malaise. On Islands, the MC is given the centre stage, dominating tracks that become actual songs, with a considered variation in tempos and styles. On the one hand, there is a descriptive narrative: Idehen continues some of the ideas of Routes–and trends in grime and dubstep in general- on tracks like ‘Double Decker Backseat’ and the hopelessly irresistible single ‘Imminent’, constructing vivid, expressionist images of London’s darker underbelly. The former is essentially wordless, Idehen’s lyrics laden with effects until it almost becomes a slur (and who living London hasn’t boarded a late-night bus barely able to articulate the simplest of thoughts). It’s a prime example of how even when Idehen takes a back seat of sorts (no pun intended), the empathy between him and LV allows his overall message to shine brightly. ‘Imminent’, meanwhile, is a disturbing half-dialogue based on an overheard conversation brimming with murderous intent: “Dat boi, dat boi, dat idiot/Thinks he’s grime, thinks he’s brilliant/He don’t know his time is limited/Can’t see his end is imminent/Imminent/Imminent/Imminent/Imminent”. The track is all the more chilling for its cantering along squelchy bass and infectious snares, overflowing with hooks even as the protagonists prepare themselves for fictional violence.

The trio don’t limit themselves to mirroring London’s neon-lit darkness, with Idehen using such stories to paint the world in which he, a Nigerian Briton raised in Benin City, deals with life, love and loss. I’d go so far as to state he lays his soul out like an open book on Islands, such as on the otherwise inconsequential 56-second ‘Obsessed’ in which Idehen plays the forlorn abandoned lover. ‘Island’, another third-person tale but one that feels more personal than ‘Imminent’ and ‘Shake’, is a dark lament on unrequited love and jealousy set to a gentle ambient backing that wouldn’t be out of place on King Midas Sound’s Waiting For You.

The two angles on Islands coalesce most impressively on ‘Run Down’, a wonderfully morose shuffle documenting Idehen’s anticipation for the oncoming night that starts out with shifting electronic drones and faint rhythmic shifts before lurching into a finger-clicking deconstructed 4/4 groove that is just the right side of catchy to get you itching for the dancefloor. LV are remarkably adroit tunesmiths, able to navigate the fine lines between minimalism and melodicism without ever descending into dry formalism or familiar clichés. Josh Idehen has a voice that is just as expressive and powerful, whether he’s belting out the fast-paced rap of ‘Imminent’ or the more sensual, evocative neo-soul of ‘Islands’. I doubt there will ever be another great leap forwards in UK urban music, but these guys certainly push the envelope further than most.

A Dusted Review: Palm Tree Fire by Slackk (September 19th, 2014)

The concept of “instrumental grime” — and indeed “instrumental hip-hop” as whole — baffled me at first. I couldn’t understand why anyone, even the most talented producer, would want to deprive their tracks of the flow of an MC, which fills the space of hip-hop music and provides the focus of the songs. But of course, the advent of new technologies (notably laptops) and a fresh contextualisation of UK hip-hop, which is no longer only a vehicle for the voice of disaffected black youth but increasingly a realm favoured by hip white folks, means there is more room to explore the limits of grime, which, much as with rock, has perhaps inevitably led to a removal of vocals from the genre altogether.

The results are often mixed, the raw passion of a Flowdan, a Warrior Queen or a Spaceape stripped away leaving, even in the case of old hand Terror Danjah, a rather uncomfortable and repetitive austerity. It could simply be that not everyone’s a Kevin Martin, but I have long suspected, much like that bloke back in the 1950s who didn’t think much of rock’n’roll, so I’m likely incorrect — that instrumental grime is not a genre that will stick around for long.

That said, Liverpool’s Paul Lynch could be the guy to give it the much-needed injection of oomph. Lynch has been involved with grime pretty much since day one, and has developed into something of an authority on it via his Grimetapes blog and the Boxed crew. This wide-reaching, encyclopaedic knowledge therefore informs the entirety of Palm Tree Fire, making it a sort of journey across grime’s entire spectrum. You’d expect it therefore to be almost schizophrenically eclectic, but Lynch combines astute judgement with a remarkable melodic sensitivity.

At times, Palm Tree Fire feels like a journey through both space and time, starting with the muscular title track, which features gruff sampled male shouts, staccato beats and moody bass lines; and winding through 14 other vignettes before concluding with “Kit and Holly,” a peculiar (certainly un-grime), organic snippet dominated by xylophones sounds that could have been plucked from a children’s TV show, birdsong and atmospheric hesitant synths. The contrast between the opener’s macho swagger and the almost fragile textures on “Kit and Holly” could almost serve as a metaphor for Palm Tree Fire in its entirety.

Along the way, Slackk treats us to the entire panoply of grime’s various evolutions. Snares like machine gun fire rattle ominously at detached intervals under metronomic hi-hat bursts and see-sawing high-pitched synths on “Intercept” and “Jackal,” pulsating with futurist dystopianism. “Millipede” and “Three Kingdoms” are the epitome of the new sub-genre called “sinogrime” where synths that sound like they’ve been lifted from 80’s art-pop band Japan’s Tin Drum sway over analogue-sounding percussion that shifts in unpredictable tempos far removed from grime’s traditional full-on rhythmic assault. There’s even the occasional “eastern”-sounding wind instrument for good measure. “Sinogrime” is certainly an interesting proposition, as Fatima Al-Qadiri recently displayed on her Asiatisch album, but, in the hands of Westerners, it can quickly descend into bland formalism and vaguely coarse stereotyping. Lynch dodges that bullet on the lush “Three Kingdoms,” but “Millipede” is pretty dull.

It’s a rare thing, but Palm Tree Fire’s eclecticism proves to be a strength, as Lynch’s scattergun approach may be erratic, but when it hits the nail on the proverbial, the absence of MCs becomes as irrelevant as it would in any other genre of electronic music. “Bullfight” shares the title track’s aggressive rhythmic propulsion, even edging towards a form of industrial dance akin to Vatican Shadow (with whom Palm Tree Fire’s artwork shares a certain aesthetic). But the real triumphs are an involuntary triptych formed by “Crafty Tiger,” “Litherland” and “Puma Walk.” All three are dominated by mournful synth lines developing into crystalline melodic patterns, linking Lynch’s grime DNA (encapsulated by the juddering beats he deploys) with the more restrained pop of the early ’80s synth revolution. It’s not quite Duran Duran, rest assured, nor is it as austere as early Human League or Robert Rental, but there’s an emotional strain running through these three tracks. By extension, they carry the rest of Palm Tree Fire beyond mere genre exhibition and into something more personal and resonant.

Because I fell in love with grime through the clipped, punkish energy of Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner and Wiley’s Playtime is Over, I still find the absence of vocals on these tracks a bit disconcerting. But by maintaining a remarkable coherence over so many tracks and sub-genre shifts, Slackk demonstrates just what can be achieved in instrumental grime, taking it beyond the genre’s parameters and towards something more universal.

A Quietus Review: Signals by Wen (May 19th, 2014)

Owen Darby, aka Wen, uses his music in a way that – grumpy old fart alert – I wish more artists would these days: with a distinctly political edge. It may not be the overt sloganeering of the flower power generation, or the angry hectoring of punk’s first flourish, but by clearly anchoring his visions of garage and grime within the urban jungle of modern Britain, Darby makes a statement, and it’s one worth picking out of his synths, beats and basslines.

“Big up my family,” declares a young MC sampled on the opening intro track, before declaring “This UK is real!” These words, snatches of bars sampled from grime MCs and tracks that have inspired Darby, encapsulate a divide that has been bubbling closer and closer to the surface in modern Britain: the “us and them” narrative, developed into political agenda through Tory policies and the press. People and their families are no longer simply that – they may now potentially be viewed as scroungers costing the taxpayer (even if they’re in work), job-thieving immigrants depriving indigenous Brits, or feral youth waiting on every street corner to rob and assault the righteous. The true existences of people are rendered immaterial by stereotypes. Accordingly, Wen’s music is cold, distant and dispassionate, a fractured vision of a splintered London society. Words emerge from glassy layers of electronics and jerky beats, never present long enough to be identified or clearly interpreted; lost voices appealing to indifferent ears.

Aside from this veiled socio-political context, the austerity (another topical word) of Signals is a sign of the way grime and grime-inspired music has evolved in the decade-and-a-bit since the genre first burst onto the underground club scene and pirate radio. With grime having found its way to the pop charts repeatedly over the years, those artists still attached at root level have continued to strip their music back to its core. The rhythms on Signals are juddering and skeletal, the bass a ghostly half-presence reminiscent of Burial’s phantom dubstep. With the exception of ‘Time’, which features Parris, the song element of MC-led grime is removed altogether in favour of slogan-like one-liners that jerk in and out of songs like scattered graffiti, culminating in the threatening lines of “Your neck should be swinging, bruvva!” belted out on ‘Swingin”, an eruption of violence that feels scarily real in Wen’s reconstructed London. Signals is a mirror vision of Britain’s capital, all wide spaces, ice-cold nocturnal vistas and hints of blaring modernity. Synth sounds conjure up the constant bleeping of smart phones and outdoor advertising, creating a schism between the earthy urban sounds of the people whose voices interject across the album, and the constantly shifting city that surrounds them, or even hems them in.

Signals is a vital, exciting album, precisely because it walks this fine line between aesthetic detachment and the gritty effervescence of a sketched reality. Several of the tracks are inherently danceable, echoing grime’s essence as a dancefloor genre, while others are arch and underlined by a current of moody despondency. Like mid-noughties albums like Burial’s self-titled debut or Wiley’s Playtime Is Over, this is underground electronic music that emphatically and ambiguously conjures up London; and the reflection Wen throws back at the world is harsh, seductive and questioning in equal measure.