[16 September 2009]
Generally, when the prefix “ambient” is tagged before a musical style, particular a dance style, it can serve as a functional warning, not unlike if one were to similarly amend the words “intelligent” or “progressive” to a chosen genre. “Ambient” as an endocentric modifier implies a redirection of priorities and potentially a downshift in emphases, perhaps even a conceit toward navel-gazing auterism. Listeners beware.
Dubstep, a scene with an increasingly surprising shelf-life, particularly in the age of the diverted gaze, is a genre that has seen a lot of ink, at least virtual ink, spilled over itself since its inception midway through this decade. With all this chin-scratching and keypad tapping, it seems only natural that someone might take the rhythmic conventions of dubstep and apply some lysergic Sea World bubbling and achromatic scale synth wanks atop them. Yet, much of dubstep is itself retrogressive in its approximations of straight dub and dancehall. Note Soul Jazz’s defining compilations of the milieu, both of which are called A Box of Dub and not A Box of Dubstep. What started as an experimental aside to 2 Step and Grime soon became an avalanche of hyped releases that were more like the heavy metal versions of Jamaican imports than anything groundbreaking or earth-shaking in ways that didn’t register on the seismographs of King Tubby’s time.
What kept dubstep’s narrative vital and mobile was the re-influx of ideas from US and UK rave and dance: chipmunk diva wails, shivering bursts of noise, video game squeals, et al. A splinter of the divergent directions that emerged was an “ambient” subgenre. Thankfully, this wound up being an opportune and apt arranged marriage, perhaps humbled by the fact that several lead artists like Martyn and Shackelton were barely acquainted with dubstep before they were unofficially nominated as spokesmen for it. Considering how Lee “Scratch” Perry and Brian Eno shared similar ideas about the spatial relationship of the music to the microphone and all that the manufactured sound environments between them could offer, the union of dub and ambient hardly even seems like a revolutionary idea.
The sound of the scene was adopted by Stefan Betke, better known as Pole, who now seemed like the dubstep stepfather that had been forgotten amidst the El-Bs and Horsepower Productions. He enlisted his label, ~scape, to round up the best and brightest of the new breed and planted a new production of his own alongside the rest of the Round Black Ghosts cast to spotlight his place on the family tree. The selections from that compilation were tracks that could both snugly fit the categorization of dubstep (though so far removed from Caspa that it could be considered active avoidance) and sit gracefully amongst the ~scape roster.
A year after that volume, Round Black Ghosts is back with a sequel. Less of a game-changer than a continuation, Round Black Ghosts 2 carries over Ramadanman, Untold, Martyn, Peverelist, and Pole, and adds a few new names to the mix. There’s perhaps nobody here that any loyal steppaz won’t have heard of, and there’s even a few singles that anybody with their ears to the floor wouldn’t have already of already (Martyn’s “Vancouver, Peverelist and Appleblim’s “Circling”).
Scuba’s “Bleach” is the only new track, a squeaky, shuffling mix pumped fully of puffy aerations practically too anemic of melody to appear as anything more than atmospheric stuffing. As such, it’s exactly this kind of minimalism that seems directly envisioned for this compilation. It’s as if Betke secretly desires to strip this dubwise dance music down to its most basic textures until the tracks all sound like bouncy remixes of Pole’s 3 album.
The rest of the album is a nice recap of 2008 and it’s surprisingly strong considering its relative similarity to the first compilation. The two most radical tracks on Round Black Ghosts 2 are only so because they’re likely ineligible entries into the dubstep canon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pole’ own “Alles Gute” is one of these. Though more subdued than many, the pace is hyperactive for a Pole track. It’s decorative by incandescent synth patches and buzzing not unlike the titular character from The Scientist’s “The Bee” if his honeycomb was dipped in resin. Likewise, the Flying Lotus remix of “Natural Selection” by Martyn may not be dubstep proper (in fact these particular warped and fractured mainframes recall Tortoise more than Ikonika), but the L.A. based artist’s reconstruction finds a friendly niche amongst the work here.
The individual songs on the Round Black Ghosts compilations are not mixed together, but rather are featured in all twelve inches of their glory. That means that one gets all eight minutes of Peverelist and Appleblim’s “Circling” with its various skittering objects bouncing Pong-style against the wall and dissipating into decelerated breaths on the half-beat. Rubber wobble bass tests its buoyancy against drifting gases of Seefeel-esque texture while twangy plucked strings bounce like pebbles across a pond of Zen dub. The B-side from that single, “Over There”, is even more spaced out along the Chain Reaction/ Basic Channel axis, but perhaps too enervated for this volume.
Zed Bias, the odd artist who has not swapped names since his days penning UK garage smashes like the ebullient “Neighbourhood”, scales his production down to its instrumental version, revealing layers of microtonal moog P-funk that linger in the deepest arches of the ear canal below what were once swift militaristic vocals from Jay Electronica and Ghost 1. TRG’s fractured piano strands flash in isolated strands like Polaroids from a half-remembered reality. These fuzzy prompts are complimented by female croons of “Nothing you can do” borrowed from an unknown version of “My Guy”. It’s far from the strongest work in TRG’s arsenal that enunciates these themes though. Martyn’s “Vancouver” poses its work between cymbals from an open air tower and low-end bass and toms encroaching from several feet below the earth. Fittingly, the track is slightly darkside and claustrophobic, opening with a perversely overjoyed laugh ripped from the histrionics of horror films and heavy metal.
Untold’s “Yukon”, on the other hand, reserves its sampled voices for schizophrenic bursts. Its psychedelic abstraction is admirable, but many of the dubstep tracks like these appear selectly reluctant to embrace their own reference points. It’s almost as if there’s a fear running through the scene of coming off as too much of a Burial imitator. Ramadanman’s “Blimey” is even more abstract, only offering the vaguest tonal frequencies and field recordings in its background, taking cues from the Skull Disco crew. Its sparseness and uneasy atmospherics, which includes hellish manipulations of children playing, are perhaps far more disturbing than anything on the intentionally spooky “Vancouver” and would have fit nicely on one of Kevin Martin’s 90s compilations like Macro Dub Infection or Isolationism.
While Round Black Ghosts 2 brings no new hauntings to the table, it demonstrates that perhaps one compilation was not enough to encompass all the ghosts of the séance. And it helps reinforce the idea that “ambient” need not be a dirty prefix. In fact, it can actually be complimentary.