[18 June 2004]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In the mid- to late ‘90s, drum’n'bass was everywhere. According to the media and record companies, electronica was the Next Big Thing that was going to save the music industry, like grunge had several years before, and drum’n'bass was one of electronica’s elite subgenres. Computer music for people who thought that the pounding 4/4 rhythms and funk samples of techno, house, and trance were better suited to upscale clothing boutiques than the clubs, it had already morphed into several varieties. There was the hardcore of Goldie; the expansive, jazz-influenced sound of LTJ Bukem; the “dark” claustrophobia of Photek; the scattershot “drill’n'bass” of Squarepusher; and several other permutations and combinations. Browsing the drum’n'bass section of a good record store was like grocery shopping at a high-end international market. And, for the most part, the goods were just as tasty. Pop musicians as diverse as Everything but the Girl and David Bowie were giving it a try.
Now, nearly a decade later, drum & bass is still everywhere, but not in the way that its evangelists or the record companies would have liked. You can hear it on commercials for fast cars and as background music on extreme sports shows, and that’s about it as far as mainstream culture goes. It’s never the worst thing when an edgy, commercially questionable style goes back underground, but there’s a more disturbing trend. Even within the dance music subculture, drum’n'bass is increasingly seen as on the decline, a music that has peaked in popularity and creativity and is dying a slow, quiet death.
Even during its peak, detractors were predicting that drum’n'bass would not last, because the basic elements—reggae-derived sub bass, sampled and sped up breakbeats, and not much more—were inherently self-defeating. In a 2001 interview, producer/composer Jonny Global aka Penetrator was asked if he thought drum’n'bass was a “stagnant, even dying genre”. He said yes, and added an extremely prescient remark: “If Drum N’ Bass is only allowed to stay “Drums and Bass” without seriously crossing up with other genres, how can it really grow? It’s like having a genre called ‘Bells and Whistles’.” Come 2004, the ranks seem to be closing even more tightly, not opening up.
Breakbeat Science: exercise.003 is one of the more high-profile drum’n'bass compilations to come along for a while. Produced for the New York City-based Breakbeat Science label by one of its more well-known artists, Klute (Englishman Tom Withers), it has a lot going for it from the start. It’s quite good—as far as drum & bass goes. And, for non diehards at least, therein lies the problem.
But first the props. exercise.003 attempts to inject new life into the genre, and succeeds on several counts. The 16-track continuous mix is heavy going, but its little quirks manage to let some daylight in and give hungry ears something fresh to hear. Break’s “Positive/Negative” goes back to the old school, conjuring up the buzzing, swarming sound of early “beehive” techno. Calibre adds sampled female vocals to “What We Give”, creating a sort of hook. Even more impressive are Amit’s “Roots” and Baron’s “Ransom”. Both tracks feature slowed-down (for drum & bass), genuine dub basslines, which anchor them solidly. “Roots”‘s scuttling beats are punctuated by what sounds like small arms fire—a bold, arresting, and effective technique. “Jungle” has been an out-of-favor term for years, but it applies perfectly to “Ransom”, what with the little marimba melody and monkeys—that’s right—going nuts in the background. Kooky!
As for the rest, you’ll get a top-quality breakbeat frenzy, as rhythms careen off one another and basslines divebomb like in a fevered game of Centipede. There’s a little bit of dark, sci-fi action as well as some synthesizer-shaded tracks (Klute’s own “Galaxian” among them), and nothing here is for wimps. Aficionados will love exercise.003, and it’s sure to blow the speakers off the clubs, or maybe the car stereo. Sadly, though, that’s as far as its effects will likely stretch. Its—and drum’n'bass’s—ambitions would have to stretch, too, if that’s going to change.