2010: What is it that makes today’s producers so different, so appealing?

From James Blake to Balam Acab, Actress to How To Dress Well, the dreams and actions of a few bedroom producers have stretched music into new forms, new shapes and new feelings. Tamara El Essawi examines these new ‘centres of gravity.’

31.12.10

Words by: Charlie Jones

I think I’ve listened to Actress’ album ‘Splazsh’ in just about any circumstance where the alternative has been natural sound. Walking to work in the morning, smoking between lectures at university, trying to ignore the cold while waiting for a night bus, doing a hungover Sunday afternoon shop, sitting alone in my room. I’ve heard Maze while on a night out, and it works perfectly it that situation too. It strikes that the amazing thing about ‘Splazsh’ is that there is no best place for it. Those trickling beats, those bubbling rhythms will fit any moment hand in glove. ‘Splazsh’ doesn’t have a genre (as most reviews are quick to point out), and, what’s more it doesn’t have a mood or an agenda. The focus isn’t on trying to make you dance or think, just on incredible, thick, rich sound. All ‘Splazsh’ wants is to be and be with you. It’s a feel that’s been apparent throughout 2010 in a range ofproducers. In James Blake’s ‘Klavierwerke’, How To Dress Well’s ‘Love Remains’, Nicolas Jaar’s Time For Us, John Roberts’ ‘Glass Eights’, Balam Acab’s See Birds, every one of Ramadanman’s precision beats. They don’t make a spectacle of themselves, but draw you under through how insistently their music lives on its own terms. Producers who develop through revolving around their own centres of gravity.

Contorted sounds, that expressive bass, pitched voices slipping through the gaps. James Blake’s ‘Klavierwerke’ is fascinating. The way the title track stumbles all broken and disjointed, sounding like it could fly apart at any moment, but all tightly wound together by a steady, human heartbeat-like pound. The disparate clap on I Only Know (What I Know), wind tunnel sweeps of static, the moments of stillness which are there to be filled out with the sounds of what ever happens to be around you as a listener. James Blake has always sounded strikingly complete through being in pieces. Bits of vocal, crackles, clicks, washes of instrumentation overlap, cut each other off, sink in and out of touch all the time. It’s like looking at a cubist painting, where images are broken into multiple facets mimetic of the different viewpoints of the human eye. His songs feel like they are happening in more than one dimension, where the repetition and stringing together of fragments creates a whole far more real than if this was a single smooth surface. The pieces and the spaces between allow you in. The ways you interact with it shift, new fragments added and taken away, new portals open up into the landscape he builds. Blake’s I Only Know (What I Know), with its cut ‘n’ paste composition and lack of linear narrative – either lyrically or particularly in terms of the peaks and troughs of a straight dance track – feels very here and now. It’s a three-dimensional world, made to be inhabited as opposed to played at you.

Fragmentation is important for Ramadanman too. You can actually hear the slicing whoosh of a blade on Tumble, and then there’s the way he re-cut Jamie Woon’s Night Air into epic yet tight percussive form. DJ favourite Work Them is incredibly intense and controlled. Constantly jump starting, sending limbs a jitter, David Kennedy sounding like he’s lining up beats in battalions, or composing in strings of genetic code. Absolute puppeteer of rhythm and glitch. The track is pinned down according to his rules, and these are rules clearly laid down with a dance-floor in mind. But the feel of it is ambiguous. The sharp pulses of Work Them exist intensely and insistently, but I can’t decide if they make me picture a carnival or a military march. It’s destabilizing, and oddly freeing not knowing where your mental space is being directed.

The first time I heard Balam Acab was back in February when someone played See Birds off his myspace page. It was so thick. Like Jupiter wading through treacle, like hearing in 24 carat gold. So strikingly complete, swimming into focus like it knew exactly where it was going, while giving nothing away about where it was coming from. Such full-bodied disembodiement it was difficult to imagine there was an actual human being behind it all. In the same way that ‘Splazsh’ feels like it strides with you side by side, or John Roberts’ ‘Glass Eights’ folds into place around you, the dense textures of See Birds don’t need to have a person attached because they feel human enough on their own.

Everything is out there if you’re interested, and yet they don’t present their music in terms of themselves. Attaching a fully formed character to the song isn’t important. We get refracted snippets of the person, never the whole thing and never nothing. Throughout How To Dress Well’s ‘Love Remains’ the vocals yearn with soul. The words themselves though are often indistinct, or have the feeling of odd scraps, displaced phrases. Ready For The World climbs higher and higher on blasts of incredibly strong yet strangely unspecific emotion. It’s the same sensation you get from the sparkling tower-blocks and heady samples of James Blake’s CMYK. Intriguing because you feel the rush without being obligated to acknowledge the source. You listen and layer your own feelings over the top. You control the terms of the interaction, and despite this, the song loses none of its allure and intrigue.

With an artist like Balam Acab, words like ‘ghostly’ are often quick to come up. But even factoring in the celestial, choir-of-angels vocal on Regret Making Mistakes, I’d say he sounds warm and earthy rather than elusive and spectral. It’s all about the sensation. And what could be more earth-bound than that? None of those producers mentioned above are really a mystery. We all now know that Balam Acab is music student Alec Koone, that How To Dress Well is Brooklyn resident Tom Krell, that Actress is Werk Discs boss Darren Cunningham. James Blake, John Roberts and Nicolas Jaar haven’t even bothered with monikers. If anything, a Burial-style rigidly upheld anonymity seems rather passé. Oni Ayhun and his whOLe OFicially uKNown Identity eFfort sEemed both the year’s worst kept, and least concerning, secret. His overly theatrical stage get-up didn’t really matter much either. All everyone cared about were things like how amazing and immersive OAR-003B is. Meanwhile, a band like Hype Williams have been so clever and playful about their sense of mystery it basically makes a game out of the whole concept.

All the producers brought up here have their roots in some form of dance music – techno, dubstep, R&B, hip hop. Music that’s about communal appeal, designed to make large amounts of people move. Their music though isn’t always obviously ‘danceable’. The physicality of a track like CMYK means it works very well in that context too, but the R&S slogan ‘in order to dance’ sits as an option rather than a requirement. It’s always amazing though to see a record like ‘Klavierwerke’ make a dance-floor react, the jolting, space-heavy pace drawing everyone into slow, irregular sync and step.

Ben UFO recently started his year-in-summary podcast for Resident Advisor with Actress’ Maze. It’s the perfect kick off point, an alluringly palpitating black hole absorbing anyone within listening distance. Perhaps this is why the moment when the already slow, sensual swing of Nicolas Jaar’sTime For Us drops back further to 75BPM is so hypnotic. It starts off in glacial, pocket watch dangling before your eyes, pattering ambience before stepping into an immaculately pieced mellow groove. The pendulum swings, gravelly vocals mumbling sweet nothings tick by, and then the song stops moving forwards, doesn’t cycle back on itself, but gets lost in its own fibres. The unconscious state of hypnosis happens. A track of his like WOUH is more impressive still, in that it works within and develops that poised static charge over its entire over-seven-minutes length. The slow pacing has an oddly synergistic effect, digging the listener deeper into whatever state of mind they happen to be in.

Ramadanman and Appleblim’s Void 23 is proof though that this kind of fall into a landscape beyond genre and feel is possible at a more typically ‘peak-time’ momentum. Void 23 is an amazing piece of free-fall architecture. It falls through the gaps of genre and mood with a giddy rush. The subtly pulsating beginning is like someone’s trying to re-wire your nerve endings. The hello-we-have-kick-drum moment is like being pushed off a cliff. Hello terminal velocity. When it ends, you don’t feel quite on firm ground. Like Work Them it leaves you all pulsed up and not sure where to go. Void 23shows that the gaps are far richer and more substantial than the core. The kind of flexibility given by working in the margins (in this case of techno) is the best way to piece together your own landscape and centre.

On the 28th of November James Blake released Limit To Your Love. It’s a pop song. The words are clear, he’s found his voice in a very literal way. But even though Limit To Your Love is far closer to say, Anthony & The Johnsons than Joe, it’s not smooth. The spaces remain, the blast of emotion, the fragmentation as that beautiful, almost androgynous vocal, heavy piano, those slow tidal waves of bass and beat, sketch out. It’s a cover song, so the words aren’t his own, and he doesn’t necessarily feel what he sings. Again, there’s still not a distinct person on show, but an unspecific hazy impression, much like the sleeve art of his ‘Klavierwerke’ EP, and indeed the artwork for his forthcoming album. The video clip has over a million hits on youtube, and moving into 2011 it’s hard to think of a more hyped debut.

It could be because James Blake seems like he happened in his own way. He doesn’t particularly fit anywhere, but mines the gaps between form and sound. It’s likeable that he doesn’t need to fit into any pre-existing space. An audience will still come and still react to the space he creates for himself. We are responsive to someone like James Blake, Nicolas Jaar, to Ramadanman’s elemental rhythms, the disembodied nature of Balam Acab, the free-roaming ‘Splazsh’. It’s not patronizing. They trust you to get it and don’t feel the need to move within the accepted norms of their disparate fields of music – or indeed to move within a field of music at all – in order to be understood. No spectacle, it is what it is. Songs that sound like they don’t need you, they just needs to exist. May those centres of gravity hold.