While 2013 saw many important evolutions across all styles of dance music, one particular genre that stands out is drum & bass. We witnessed the likes of Machinedrum, Rockwell, and Om Unit integrating the stateside sounds of juke, trap and ghetto-tech beyond the 170 BPM context in recent months. We also saw artists like Dub Phizix and Sam Binga experimenting heavily with off-kilter rhythmic patterns and fresh-sounding percussive samples. Sub Focus, Chase & Status and the Hospital Records crew perfected the radio-friendly formula with long-play releases that achieved both commercial and critical success. To say it was a busy year for drum and bass would be a massive understatement.
With all of these fresh sounds speeding along in the fast lane, coupled with the chaotic pace at which music is released digitally these days, a lot of great drum & bass albums got lost in the shuffle. While many producers and DJs are rushing to find a way to incorporate TR-808s into their toolkits, there are plenty of others who are still making proper tunes with little more than an amen break. I'd like to showcase several full-lengths that may not have scored high in hype factor like the artists described above, but still pushed the bar as far as the music itself is concerned. Because isn't that what it's all about at the end of the day?
5. Fanu - Departure (Lightless Recordings, December 2013)
Finnish beat-chopper Fanu just released his fifth long-player, Departure, earlier this month. And unlike some of his peers, what Fanu brings to the table isn't a whimsical collage of sounds that alter with every passing fad. Instead, he focuses with laser precision on the breakbeat-heavy sounds known as drumfunk. Fanu dives deeper through dusty boxes of everything from funk to folk to derive the drums heard across these eleven tracks. Signatures like "The Unconscious" are awash in layers of swaggering snares, while the opening track "Drumso Fuzz" touts a serene mix of layered pads. Almost half of Departure splits the tempo in two, allowing Fanu to explore newer textures afforded by the space that 80-100 BPM hip-hop provides. "Too Blessed to Be Stressed" is a nod to the fledging early-90s sounds of jungle à la Dee Jay Recordings and Good Looking, while "Dirt" fast-forwards a couple years to toast the sounds of early techstep a la No U-Turn. It's a solid effort, evened out by a heavy reliance on sampling over synthesis and meticulous editing techniques.
4. A-Sides: Based Upon Bass (Eastside, January 2013)
With over 20 years of releases under his belt, A-Sides is a drum & bass veteran. While most of his output has consisted of 12" singles and EPs, he's delivered three full-lengths in as many years since 2010, with Based Upon Bass as his most recent. Like Fanu, A-Sides is steady in his production style and manages expectations quite well over 12 tracks of heavyweight-yet-digestable low frequencies and carwash-clean breaks. Based Upon Bass's flagship is definitely the Notorious B.I.G.-inspired "Flashback" featuring longtime collaborator MC Fats. Other highlights: the ragga-tinged "Off the Roadside," the sedate and serious "Dramatic Eyes," the rough-riding growler (and ironically titled) "Crystal Clean," and the closing track "Spiritual Synergy," featuring the vocals of another drum & bass veteran, Jo-S. A sleeper favorite of mine is also "Sentinel," which reminds me of his late-90s output—stripped back and subtle, with the occasional stab from a hip-hop joint you can't quite put your finger on. It's a shame this well-crafted album was released with minimal promotion or distribution.
3. Rawtekk - Sprouted and Formed (Med School, July 2013)
If the technical, brash, and synthetic sounds of neurofunk stalwarts like Noisia and Phace tickle your fancy, I highly recommend a listen to Rawtekk's Sprouted and Formed LP on Hospital sister-label Med School. The German duo reveals two dramatically different musical personas on their full-length debut. The tension between these two styles are most palpable in the opening track "A Magnanimous Kind's Will," which begins with sedative piano keys that give way to slamming, gated drums and tense risers as the song unfolds. The sedative side of Sprouted and Formed also emerges in the slow-burning "Anywhere" and "Halo," both of which incorporate textural female vocals and scant, mercurial percussive bits. Then we've got the uncompromising and relentless chaos of the dancefloor-ready "To Be A Space Monkey," the explosive "Monopolists and Robberies," and the drastically muffled "Amber's Love Was Like A Marble," a track I can only describe as the distorted rumble from a slamming party that you might hear in the lav during a piss break. With its healthy mix of dubstep and downtempo, Sprouted and Formed is easily one of the most eclectic drum & bass albums I've heard this past year.
2. Mixmaster Doc - That Now (Driven AM, April 2013)
Stateside producer Mixmaster Doc penned his debut long-player That Now last spring, straight off the back of almost a decade of steady singles and digital downloads. While drum & bass fans who prefer the traditional style of liquidfunk might be taken aback by this affair, those in search of fresh sounds won't be disappointed. Tracks such as "In Bloom" lean heavily on half-tempo TR-808 sequences heavily inspired by hip-hop and trap without sounding too generic. "That Now" applies a similar aesthetic to the dubstep template, while "Jealousy" takes cues from juke. The remaining songs incorporate more of the rolling breakbeats we all know and love. "Cancellation Dub" is sparse and dub-heavy with a sprawling sub that can still do dancefloor damage, while "Never Loved You" is a liquid roller that most closely resembles Mixmaster Doc's signature sound from his 12" singles. What ties this batch of songs together is the pads, which are layered in spades in every passage. This is an album I'd gladly show anyone who's ringing the death knell of drum & bass in America.
1. Stranjah - Visionz of a Future (Architecture, May 2013)
Toronto's Stranjah dropped his debut LP, Visionz of a Future, following 15 years of 12" singles released on well-respected labels from both sides of the pond. While this album tells a better story of where Stranjah is currently at rather than where he might be five years from now, it's a musically-enriched album garnished with a variety of styles, moods, and tempos. The first quartet of songs ("Eminence," "Decadence," "Assassinz Redux" and the title track) are relaxed and digestible openings for even the most casual of listeners. The synths reign supreme across these four cuts, with the drums & bass serving as an exoskeleton. "Interrogator" and "Sorry" focus on dubstep, with moody spectral atmospherics and pitch-heavy drums. Similarly eerie vibes are translated at drum & bass speed in the latter part of the album with "Medusa" and "Undertow." We then close with "Amen Fury," five minutes of distorted, chaotic breakbeats and gut-punching bass. As the listener travels through this album in a linear fashion we see a complete unveiling and transformation in Stranjah's personality, as well as his impeccable ability to convey these moods musically. If stylistic diversity is what he hopes to continue achieving in the future, then I'm certainly on board with his vision.
Manix - Living in the Past (Reinforced, October 2013)
The equivalent to traveling in time back to 1992, breakbeat hardcore legends Manix give us 10 high-octane cuts of chipmunked vocals and pitched-up samples. We're left Googling the album in shock to confirm these are, in fact, new tracks, as opposed to ones spent collecting dust on the cutting floor. (Beatport)
Justice & Metro - Oxymoron (Modern Urban Jazz, April 2013)
Still experimenting after almost 20 years, Justice & Metro continue to navigate through less-traveled soundscapes on this space-maximized compilation. (Beatport)
Thing - Depthwise Collected (Depthwise, December 2013)
With 12 tracks that hinge heavily on the mid-noughties heyday of liquidfunk, Thing provides the tools for any DJ to properly build up or bring down the night, depending on their timeslot. (Beatport)
Critical Waves - Elevation (Melting Pot, November 2013)
Up-and-coming producers Critical Waves provide an hour of melodramatic landscapes paraphrased by pastel pads and hefty breakbeats. (Beatport)