[31 January 2008]
Northern Ireland’s Barry Lynn, the innovative sound sculptor known as Boxcutter, has the unfortunate stigma of having the term “dubstep” shadow him no matter how far he ventures away from it. 2006’s Oneiric was widely said to have explored the margins of dubstep, unveiling new spaces for the genre to infiltrate. Few realized that dubstep for Boxcutter was just one avenue (albeit an ostensibly now path) through which Lynn chose to realize his grander visions.
Perhaps, the confusion arose from both dubstep’s and Boxcutter’s allegiance to the dub half of dubstep’s namesake. Dub’s influence on modern music, particularly electronic music, is as vast and fervent as the blues’ influence on rock ‘n’ roll’s first 20 years. The blues’ claustrophobic insularity, like the accompanying sense of cultural estrangement at the hands of its white rock ‘n’ roll audience, encouraged an unified alienation, a kind of shared desolation for the lonely crowds looking to topple political and social barriers. Dub and its mother genus reggae, while still culturally an “other” for predominantly white musicians to co-opt, conversely stressed an euphonic agoraphobia, specifically outlined in the spaces between the musical notes rather than the melodies themselves.
Boxcutter’s latest and his second for Planet Mu, Glyphic contains plenty of macro dub infections, but with any luck the album will also help cement Lynn’s status as a singular artist of many forms and fancies. His work not only defies the pretenses and trends of genre, but rejects them as well, choosing instead to go cavorting through the open wilderness of the recently wired past.
And beyond. Glyphic has swabs of drum ‘n’ bass (“Rusty Break”), a touch of two-step (“Foxy”), the intricacies of IDM (“Lunal”), some big dubby bass numbers (“J Dub”) and dapples of sonically sentient cosmic jazz (“Fieldtrip”) mixed into a big stew. Boxcutter’s beats on these tracks are not afraid to show their age. This datedness might seem off-putting to fad-hoppers. But to those who still recognize the merit in those old forms, his well-aged programming style showcases Boxcutter as a distinguished and well-studied gentleman of electronic media, one fully capable of fusing the classic with the contemporary.
The free-floating promise of dub’s deep space exploration exists on Glyphic mostly in texture and scenery. Drones, wails and sustained ambient harmonics adorn the background of Glyphic’s 11 tracks while the sequencers often run wild out front.
“Bug Octet,” perhaps the album’s most dubstepping track, is not unlike a deranged Squarepusher jibe. More fractured than hooky, it would require a detailed engineering legend to decipher all of the alternating currents running throughout the song. The ornamentation of Glyphic rarely clutters the album to a crippling degree, though the genre-hopping does get a bit overwhelming for a single sitting through Glyphic’s 55 minutes.
Boxcutter’s combination of organic and programmed instrumentation compliments, rather than decorates, the deep dark bass sound with which he is associated. The appropriately named “J Dub” is a slice of drugged King Tubby echo chamber bliss with a repetitive Seefeel-ish bassline, ghostly voices haunting the song’s horizon and astral synths reminiscent of cuts off Warp’s Artificial Intelligence compilations.
“Bioscid” abandons the layout altogether and gets locked into a wistful, though perhaps misplaced, analogue skillet that could have been a forgotten highlight of AFX’s Chosen Lords comp. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but it further illustrates Boxcutter’s dynamic range and provides an interesting aside to the unconvinced.
“Fieldtrip” opens with twinkling bells and Eastern strings being welcomed by a whining trumpet before they are dramatically cut off by a static lightning blast and a quick fade-in of a percussive odyssey unlike any of the lame field trips I ever went on. This “Fieldtrip” places its emphasis on the “trip” and manically races through a dense, but liberating atmospheric adventure, like Hayao Miyazaki directing a Foul Play remix of an empyreal Pharaoh Sanders joint.
This cathartic burst of adrenaline comes after an exhausting trek of ups and downs that almost feel like a series of great mini EPs mish-mashed together. Boxcutter’s previous album Oneiric exploited the album format to distinguish Boxcutter as something greater than a genre and singles-only producer. His major weakness on Glyphic is that even album format can’t seem to contain him any more. It seems silly to hold this against him as long as our pause and skip buttons are still intact to autonomously wander through the plethora of quality material Glyphic has to offer.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/boxcutter-glyphic/