Of all the areas of underground music that seemed to surge forward this year, grime was one of the most obvious and most intense. Though the genre is now roughly a decade a old, it's been a consistent element in the UK scene since its London origin, remaining an energetic community while its cousin dubstep mutated wildly on the global stage, and it is now experiencing what has widely been recognised as a 'grime renaissance' or a 'new wave' of instrumental grime. And with the spontaneous online competition to produce 'war dubs' that flared up in September causing many dozens of producers to put hundreds of their best riddims forwards (you could practically feel them dropping quality and amazement on each other), 2013 might have been one of the most exciting years in emergent grime for quite some time – a year when the genre reached back to its roots to create its future.
The new wave of grime has already been extensively explored by Joe Moynihan, Angus Finlayson, Paul 'Slackk' Lynch and Joe Muggs, in the liner notes for the 'Grime 2.0' compilation and in Wire magazine 357 (November 2013) and Ruth Saxelby wrote a piece on the infiltration of UK sounds in recent American music, too. But why a new wave now? As Muggs and Finlayson (via Visionist) point out, younger producers have or could well have felt disillusioned with the often compromising path taken by grime's more successful acts. It's also the case that grime has had to compete for space and attention for a few years now. One of the forces stealing grime's audiences and producers has been, as Slackk wonderfully put it, 'house and that.' The term perfectly describes the recently popular blend of various US and UK house styles, with a particular focus on eighties and nineties sounds and sometimes even accompanying ideas about heritage. More generally, the usually angular grime has often been sliding into smoother dance since figures like Wiley (on Wearing My Rolex) and Dizzee Rascal (on Dance Wiv Me and Bonkers) started rising up the charts in the late noughties. It was telling that when Teddy played his first war dub on a Kiss FM show dedicated to the conflict, Jammer dissed it as 'disco ting', it presumably being too dancy and so inappropriate for a grime war.
Another trespasser on grime's turf has been road rap and more US-rooted rap and hip hop styles. The Lex Luger, Southern or 'trap'-style of hip hop production, with its rapid 808 hi-hats and snares, has been as all over grime lately as it has been everywhere else. Intentionally or not, this shift was vividly portrayed on Footsie's first war dub, when Bob Marley's Sun is Shining (Footsie was using the line "to the rescue") suddenly gives way to a cold 808 stare. Negative reaction to such 'trap' came to a head in the war dubs, with Wiley's This Ain't a Trap War and Inkke's war dub, which began by sampling an interview in which Jammer plays what was clearly a highly trap-influenced sound to Southern rapper Waka Flocka Flame and calls it "grime," before another sample declares "no way… no," and the dub launches into a high-energy medley of sounds that many of us might consider to be unique to grime, to be 'proper' grime, evoking Wiley, Preditah and Tempz.
Ultimately all these pressures on grime – what commercial success means, smoother dance directions and US approaches – really begged the question: what is grime? And for the answer to that, many producers have looked to its early days circa 2003, discovering there a freshness that stands out sharply against the productions of more recent years. As if by way of instruction, the very first sound with which Inkke's war dub responds to the trapulated grime Jammer played to Waka is deeply reminiscent of the early noughties riddims of Wiley in its heavy syncopation, pan-flutes, scraped cello, irregular percussion, semitones and square-wave bass (the square wave is one of the most important synth waveforms in grime – it sounds a bit like a clarinet, a big plastic tube, or a Gameboy the size of a tank). This was the madly radical sound that played a key role in defining grime circa 2002-2004, better known as 'eski'.
"If eski was a car designed in 2002, neo-eski feels like what the car would look like after a redesign in 2032, and not just the car itself but also the bizarre social, technological and climatological violence you'll be able to see out of its windows."
At the heart of today's grime renaissance is an eski renaissance. Short for 'eskimo', Wiley's eski instrumentals include, of course, Eskimo, Jam Pie, Colder and Ice Rink, a production so weird and minimalist it doesn't have any tuned melodic elements in it at all. These instrumentals are gathered together on the 2010 collection 'Avalanche Music 1' and listening to it, you're consistently hit with a sense not just of how shockingly original and creative they are, but how successful too. Rarely do you hear music that comes up from scratch this blatantly and confidently and then runs with it. And it's not just a series of recognisable elements, either – Born On My Own, for example, sounds like it anticipates Clams Casino. Tracks as radical as Wiley's eski beats usually only get name along the lines of Untitled (Klangfarben), but you'll have noticed a running theme in labels like Eskimo, Colder, Ice Rink, Avalanche, Igloo, Snowman – the cold. What made Wiley's music so cold? It was a combination of the feel of the sounds and the moods of the melodies, particularly the way both contrasted with the UK garage more dominant at the time. Wiley's stark, basic synth shapes were the opposite of any genial groove, acoustic guitar sample (as was popular then), disco swing or analogue warmth, and, possibly taking inspiration from film and computer game soundtracks, the semitones, especially on cellos, in the music suggested sinister, deadly goings-on, while the parallel fifths and pseudo-East Asian pentatonic melodies suggested the aloof mystique of a ninja or grand master.
Since eski was born, eski-like sounds have put in an occasional appearance, such as on Kingdom's 'That Mystic' EP in 2010, but lately a number of the new wave of producers have been reviving it more concertedly, and heightening the departure it makes from more traditional dance style into something completely alien. While producers like Kahn and Neek have been recreating classic grime in a quasi-heritage manner, the neo-eski of Rabit and Logos is not a case of dressing up as a bygone era. Eski is a well of futurism that hasn't gone dry yet – if it's coming back it's because it didn't do what it needed to do first time around, and is asserting itself against its surroundings once again.
Earlier this year I wondered whether the heavily syncopated grooves currently popular in UK dance (as heard in Inkke's war dub) could be considered a form of 'anti-house' for going against house's 4/4 kick drum so severely, effectively subtracting the 'house' beat from the 'UK funky' syncopations. Eski, too, can be considered 'anti-house' on account of its angular minimalism, more a sequence of surprising sound objects against a backdrop of silence than house's easy, much more 'disco'-esque flow. Rabit's 'Black Dragons' and 'Sun Showers' EPs and Logos's 'Kowloon' EP and recent album 'Cold Mission' (the title surely a nod to eski) take this aspect much further. On all these, snatches of reverb-cloaked square wave are suddenly and violently succeeded by sound effects and long stretches of tense stasis. If eski was a car designed in 2002, neo-eski feels like what the car would look like after a redesign in 2032, and not just the car itself but also the bizarre social, technological and climatological violence you'll be able to see out of its windows.
'Cold Mission' pushed this aesthetic to its furthest extent yet. It was compared to Jam City's 'Classical Curves,' an album that heralded the cyberneticisation of the Night Slugs label and a number of other producers, and while such comparisons are not off the mark, they don't speak to Logos's eski element. In generating 'Cold Mission,' Logos seems to have applied to eski the same hi-tech-minimalising process that Jam City applied to a range of vogue-house and vogue- or boogie-like styles on 'Classical Curves.' The result is less of an album of dance cuts than an awe-inspiring monument of listening music. It seems to orbit the elements of dance from afar and weave them into a narrative, not unlike Burial does. But while Burial explores the past in the present, Logos explores the present in the future. One of the key elements that stops 'Cold Mission' from being a straight-up Stockhausen album is that like Burial's music it is built, though obliquely, out of fragments of UK dance culture: eski, grime-like sound effects and London-accented voices. But rather than it being a UK dance culture waving sadly from a night bus receding into deep feeling, 'Cold Mission' is a UK dance culture looking profoundly into the weird black mirror of new days. It's always encouraging when music introduces itself as new, like Wiley did for eski, and in 'Cold Mission's' case it's on the track Alien Shapes, where a voice describes "alien shapes" and wanting to "keep it spacy".
"Slackk's Silk Robe assigns human vocal samples to synthesiser keys and plays them as if the keyboard had been hooked up to a choir."
'Coldness' has been everywhere this year, not just in eski-related music – there was a James Ferraro mixtape called 'Cold,' and, sonically, it lived up to the name. Easy analogue warmth has given way everywhere to icy, digital minimalism. Metallic, bell-like tones have become popular, stemming from the work of Fatima Al Qadiri, Nguzunguzu and Ferraro and appearing, self-consciously perhaps, on Jam City's recent deep-freeze Bells. This, too, might be said to come from early grime. Some of the less well known tracks on Dizzee Rascal's first three albums 'Boy in Da Corner' (2003) (especially Brand New Day and Do It!), 'Showtime' (2004) and 'Maths + English' (2007) (especially U Can't Tell Me Nuffin') sound like they were released this year, perhaps by an up-and-coming New York rapper. Fatima Al Qadiri, a key player in the new hi-tech aesthetic, has long-standing grime interests, contributing to super-fresh club hip hop and MC grime as part of Future Brown, alongside Lit City Trax's J-Cush and Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda of Nguzunguzu.
The enthusiasm for the distant and the alien sometimes falls back, in a not-so-great way, on more established, potentially racialised notions of the foreign and exotic. An aspect of eski popular in the early days of grime were the timbres and pentatonic melodies associated with East Asia, which came to form a subgenre of grime usually called 'sinogrime' (Kode9 has done a short sinogrime mix). While it's not the sort of thing you'd jump to play for a performer of Chinese folk or classical music, sinogrime doesn't particularly amount to an orientalist concept music or a cultural commentary, engaging less with actual musics from East Asia than riffing off Hollywood's and video games' musical symbolism of it (not least games from Japan itself, such as Tekken). It seems to stem from a particular use of a keyboard, specifically the black keys, which taken in themselves form a pentatonic scale. Wiley and other early grime producers often had two shades of melody at their disposal, semitonal or chromatic (which was sinister-sounding) and pentatonic (which was more East Asian and playful-sounding), more or less in the place where more traditional music has minor (normally sad-sounding) and major (normally happy-sounding) harmonies. On Wiley's Ice Cream Man, you can hear the two shades alternating.
As another distinctive flavour from the roots of grime, new wavers have brought sino back too, and like eski they take it further. The Samename track Mishima Curse could have been on the soundtrack to a Playstation beat-'em-up set in feudal Japan. The new waver most consistently behind the style is Murlo, who thoroughly explores it on this year's 'Adder' and 'Last Dance' EPs, sometimes within more of a UK funky framework, and expanding it beyond pentatonicism and into timbres not unlike those of East Asian traditional instruments and even little ornaments ('Adder's' Irises, 'Last Dance's' Velvet Wall). Slackk also did some sinogrime sketches on his 2013 EPs 'Minor Triads' (especially Seance and Blue Forest, which sounds like it samples a shamisen) and 'Failed Gods' (especially 'Room Made Vague'). The latter also contained the captivating Silk Robe, not quite sinogrime but a an alluring mix of distant 808, moody harmony and another element the new wave has often taken to – assigning human vocal samples to synthesiser keys and playing them as if the keyboard had been hooked up to a choir.
"Alien without breaking down into amorphousness, 'Unknown Vectors' brutally remakes your brain, with tracks like Spaceman Piff cyclically dropping a filthy slab of square wave like a massive yo-yo coming down from orbit."
This technique particularly entered the spotlight on Fatima Al Qadiri's late 2011 EP 'Genre-Specific Xperience' and has since become a weapon in the arsenal of one of the year's most exciting producers, Visionist, who had Al Qadiri join him to make a track on his 'I'm Fine' EP. Visionist seems to be the avant-garde spearhead of grime's new wave, eschewing pastiche almost entirely in developing a range of distinctive sounds that are powerfully modern and that lose none of their effect to failed experimentalism. You may not see much of him in various end-of-year lists, and that's a shame since he was made a huge contribution this year – it's because he had a string of smaller releases and individual tracks that were each equally spectacular. Visionist provided a schooling in vox melodicism on most of the tracks from the 'I'm Fine' EP and the sweet M from M / Secrets, forging a unique production style in the process. His earlier 'Snakes' EP was just as fresh but more aggressive, using cold sounds in conjunction with more traditional grime muscle. As one of the modernists, Visionist became the natural opponent of the more classicist Kahn during the war dubs, and if I recall correctly, finally murked him with the glassy future contours of Silent Prayer for Kahn (but then I'm usually biased in favour of the modern), which has since disappeared from the internet. Finlayson quotes Visionist as observing, 'I think there are a lot of producers who, as opposed to saying, 'I'm trying to make this old tune,' they're saying, 'What mad new shit can I pull off?'"
Visionist has also pulled off some mad new shit this year on his Lost Codes label. It kicked off in August 2012 with the release of Sd Laika's 'Unknown Vectors', which fused together grime elements and countless noise curveballs into one of the most jaw-droppingly inventive debuts in recent memory, and ought to be considered "the other 'Cold Mission'". Alien without breaking down into amorphousness, 'Unknown Vectors' brutally remakes your brain, with tracks like Spaceman Piff cyclically dropping a filthy slab of square wave like a massive yo-yo coming down from orbit, while a screeching beastie sceartches, heens and chitters right up close. Visionist's remix is like Terran forces have managed to reverse-engineer the invaders' technologies, risking their own humanity in the process.
Since then, Lost Codes has been unbelievably next. The label is a dark laboratory of alien grime – releases from Filter Dread, Acre and Saga have taken angular squarewave structures into all kinds of new places. 'Red Pill & Blue Pill' by LOL Gurlz is the most recent – a skilled mix of late-noughties UK hybrid vigour and colder, more contemporary tones. The all-round biggest success might have been Bloom's 'Maze Temple EP,' an intense neo-eski raid that takes the futurism of Logos and makes you move to it. Bloom is one of the strongest of the new wavers, and his war dub send for Samename might have been my favourite of the lot, firing weapons that aren't supposed to be invented until the 23rd century.
And the new wave keeps on coming. Using metallic sounds within a more sweeping texture, MssingNo's self-titled EP has shown how to incorporate hip hop elements without collapsing into lazy imitation. Besides Lost Codes, labels like Glacial Sound, Keysound and Egyptian Avenue (who currently have three highly potent releases), and the Boxed club night should be watched closely in 2014. As should all the producers I haven't yet mentioned: Wen, Sophie and Darq E Freaker (who I briefly took in earlier this year), Mumdance (who frequently pairs with Logos, but is a crazy, unclassifiable producer on his own) OH91 and JT. And what with Night Slugs's cybernetic new sounds (heard the new Egyptrixx yet?) and Keysound's dark 130bpm grooves too, the UK and its friends abroad are definitely going through some mad new shit these days. What a year.