2014 was another solid year in the fast-running world of drum & bass. The music itself continues to evolve, particularly under the steady influence of Berlin and Detroit-based techno and Chicago-based juke. Events continue to be well-attended, particularly throughout Europe.
While drum & bass is dominated as a scene by singles and EPs, 2014 witnessed some stellar long-playing efforts that will be forever be ingrained in our consciousness. Lenzman's Looking at the Stars, Om Unit's Inversion, Icicle's Entropy, and SPY's ambitious double-disc Back to Basics were all excellent, but that's just the starting point. Here's a brief look at nine different full-length efforts which may have been overlooked, but are well worth the effort in exploring.
Marvel Cinema: Solarfly [Liquid Drops]
While Calibre, Lenzman and S.P.Y. have dominated the melodic spectrum of drum and bass for years, many producers are churning out liquid grooves equally as lush beneath the surface. German duo Marvel Cinema are one of them. Their debut LP, Solarfly, kicked off 2014 and amassed big-ticket support from LTJ Bukem, Grooverider and labelmate MSDOS. Solarfly's eleven tracks represent a wide array of moods, each conveyed through evolving pads and complimentary basslines. A classic rolling formula is present on all of these tracks, satisfying even the most hardened of purist DJs.
Machine Code: Velocity [Subsistenz]
Out of all the albums showcased here, Machine Code's Velocity is easily the most dancefloor-centric. A relentless onslaught on pent-up aggression, this album is only limited by the speed of sound itself when it comes to how fast it hits you. Saw-wave synths resembling redlining engines on the autobahn leave less sonic real estate than the square footage of an affordable apartment in San Francisco. Not a problem for Machine Code though; they fill every last inch of these voids with heavily-compressed drums, pounding basslines, and seizure-inducing undercurrents. With Current Value acting as one-half of Machine Code, seasoned listeners know this isn't an album for the faint of heart. Either way, tracks like "Others," "The Mod" and "Tekkers" are great set-building tools for the gigging neurofunk fanatic.
BOP: Punk's Not Dead [Med School]
A pioneer of the minimalist sound in the late 00s, BOP returned with his third album on Med School midway through 2014. His signature terse, one-shot samples nimbly carved with deliberate spans of silence service the infrastructure of Punk's Not Dead. Spanning 15 songs, BOP reveals much of his personality between every blip and byte. We have the innocent, breezy swing-step of "Summer Pleasures," a clever spin on juke with "Deep Space," and of course BOP's quirky sensibility with track titles such as "Dancing Nerds" and "My Warm Soft Blanket". Like much of the output coming from the Hospital camp, this effort by BOP proves that drum & bass can be fun and humorous, as long as the music itself is built on a rock-solid foundation.
Kimyan Law: Coeur Calme [Blu Mar Ten Music]
Earlier this year, Congolese-Austrian producer Kimyan Law released his debut album Coeur Calme. Concepted at an age when he was barely eligible to vote in most countries (he just turned 20 on Christmas Day), Law's unique heritage is expressed with complex rhythms and tones across all 12 tracks here. The cadences on Coeur Calme are not only gripping, but also modernized with little pretension. With these beats doing the majority of the legwork, Law uses a limited and carefully selected palette of sounds to fill the higher frequencies, including the equivalent of a toy music box on "Eclairage" and "Ember," grand piano on "Mortal Life" and "Blur," and guest vocals by Robert Manos on "Run Ames," the album's centerpiece. Law is the most recent in a successful line of A&R recruits by the Blu Mar Ten boys which also include Frederic Robinson and Stray; an undeniably good decision on their end after just a single listen to Coeur Calme.
Acid Lab: Odyssey [Omni Music]
If you've scraped the bottom of the barrel that is the Good Looking Records back catalogue in the hopes of discovering unheard atmospheric sounds, I highly recommend Acid Lab's Odyssey album. Released in November, this space-themed effort reigns in the spirit of early Seba, Paradox and Tayla from their heyday two decades ago. The highly melodic pads on "Dreams of Mars" and "Saturn V" in the album's early moments draw listeners in from the start. Coupled with crafty, meticulous drum edits, Odyssey incorporates a classic drum & bass studio workflow that prioritizes vibe over engineering. No new techniques are introduced here, nor do they need to be.
ENA: Binaural [Samurai Horo]
The vinyl-only Samurai Horo label has consistently delivered aberrant, left-of-field tracks by artists like ASC, Sam KDC and Clarity for a half-decade. Binaural, ENA's third full-length effort, released in November to an audience of qualified listeners who know the only thing it musically has in common with standard drum & bass is the 170 bpm tempo. Built entirely on dissonant soundscapes, endless layers of distortion, unpredictable skips and shuffles and oddball atmospherics that require multiple listens to fully digest, Binaural is proof that no drum & bass producer is required to stick to a formula to create interesting music. Restricted only to the tempo, ENA lets loose on bringing his desolate, dystopian visions to life on this album.
DEFCE: Surface Tension [Ohm Resistance]
Is this a record I'd play at a family reunion? No. Is it something I'd play driving down the freeway on a hot sunny afternoon? No. While on a first date? No. Softly in the background while cradling an infant child to slumberland? No. In the office fifteen minutes before a big client presentation? No. But is Surface Tension, the debut album from DEFCE, a product I'd recommend to an experimental music fiend? Absolutely. Surface Tension is a brash, uncompromising, often bitter view of a world gone mad that the mainstream media desperately tries to downplay. There's nothing fair and balanced about any of these tracks. In this 90-minute escape from the civilized world, all light (and therefore hope) is absorbed, leaving only black…clearly the favorite color of co-producers Jon Baruc and Shvl.Fce. If a normally upbeat guy like myself can appreciate Surface Tension for what it is then I have faith you can as well.
Maztek: Three Point Zero [Renegade Hardware]
With the predictable chaos of the holidays throwing everyone's daily routines for a loop, it isn't very difficult to let a solid effort like Maztek's Three Point Zero album fly underneath the radar. The latest in an endless stream of (many now-classic) albums by the Renegade Hardware label, Three Point Zero explores the Italian producer's latest efforts in carving the gnarliest riffs like it's his job. Because it is, after all. "Like a Boss," "Wraith" and "Stompin" are dancefloor-optimized and full of attitude, while other tracks including the Detroit-influenced "Anunnaki" and the half-tempo romps "Bad Body" and "Interlude" reveal an equally-as-bold, yet more experimental angle. The show-stealer of the lot is certainly the hip-hop-inspired opener, "From the Shadows," where audacious vocals by Dope D O D immediately set the no-bullshit cadence for the entire album.
Clarity: Infinite [Samurai]
Equally as unpedestrian as ENA's long-player is Clarity's Infinite. A bleak, hard-lined toast to the future, Infinite joins hollow, halftime rhythms with tempamental atmospherics that do anything but implore the listener to throw their hands in the air. A skeletal foundation of dub-inspired rhythms can be found on cuts including "Surge", "Talk Back" and "Reflex". But with every living cell on those bones foreboding the essence of post-apocalyptia, we've sonically traveled about as far from Jamaica as the space between those sporadic kick drums allow. Clarity occasionally stirs the pot over the course of this album with indiscrete, rapid-fire samples of random sounds, often employed as fills when the listener is least expecting them. Also add "Kaitain," an oddball techno suite, to make this record as predictable as a cricket match in a windstorm.
Nick Minieri lives in Boston from whence he pens THUMP's annual look back at the world of drum & bass albums.