[15 April 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If drum’n'bass hasn’t experienced death in recent years, at the very least it’s undergone dearth. That is, a dearth of fresh ideas, new sounds, and critical and social respect. A decade ago, the fear was that drum’n'bass would eventually end up as nothing more than the music that soundtracked commercials for sports cars and athletic shoes. For the most part, that fear has been realized.
But why? Plenty of other types of music have thrived long after reaching their artistic limits. Take reggae, itself a big influence on drum’n'bass. Aside from the invasion of digital technology, reggae hasn’t experienced any great innovations for 30 years, yet reggae is far from dead. Why can’t drum’n'bass survive simply by being what it is? One answer is an electronic music climate that was born of and thrives upon technology, innovation, and the introduction of new trends, simply won’t tolerate the status quo, or even subtle evolutions. Or, possibly, like disco before it, drum’n'bass is limited by its very nature, too much of its time and too well-defined to last on its own. Maybe the music world in general has just lost interest. At one point, the R&B producer Timbaland was pegged as the man to take drum’n'bass to the next level. Look how well that turned out.
Commix mean to change all this. The English duo of George Levings and Guy Brewer have declared they’re “hoping to regain the interest of people who gave up on drum’n'bass a few years ago”. Their 2007 debut, Call to Mind, was fairly well-received. But it was issued on Metalheadz, the drum’n'bass label run by Goldie, which was once at the forefront of a thriving scene but whose primary connotations are of the 1990s. Fabriclive.44 is another attempt by Commix to re-brand drum’n'bass as a forward-thinking sound of the future, or at least of the present. To that end, they’ve assembled a mix of like-minded artists as well as their own material. It’s a very smooth listen, but if Fabriclive.44 reveals fresh sounds, it’s only because you might not have heard those sounds for the better part of a decade.
Levings and Brewer claim to be influenced by present-day trends such as minimal and tech-house, but if those influences are present in the mix, it’s in a very subtle way. From the first synth washes, cricket chirps, and rattling percussion of Commix’s own “Life We Live”, Fabriclive.44 recalls nothing so much as a Metalheadz or Good Looking project from the late 1990s. You almost expect MC Conrad to turn up for a rap.
None of this means Fabriclive.44 isn’t pleasant, relaxing, or even engaging to listen to. It’s all of those. The mix presents widescreen, meditative, steady-backbeat style that was once derided as “jazz’n'bass”, but was often far more palatable than some of the frantic, uncontained “abstract” experimentalism that fell under the drum’n'bass umbrella. True to form, the 20 tracks here highlight layers of cascading percussion and throbbing, pulsating sub-bass, all rolling along seamlessly. Like the best of their predecessors, Commix know how to set the mood and keep it balanced. There are some more edgy moments, too, such as Logistics’ “Murderation”, with its repeated chant of “You gonna murder dem”. Likewise, Instra:mental’s “No Future” is indeed minimal, stripping away the snare drums and sounding totally resigned to its title’s sentiment. Goldie himself makes an appearance, under the Rufige Crew pseudonym. He sounds at the top of his game, albeit a game that hasn’t changed much in ten years.
Fabriclive.44 does reveal a few new wrinkles that may even qualify as progressions. Chief among them is Calibre’s “Can’t Get Over You”, which incorporates the drum’n'bass template into something of a moody old-school synth-pop song. Crucially, it loses none of its rhythmic power in doing so. The four Commix tracks reveal Levings and Brewer to be the rightful heirs to Goldie and LTJ Bukem. The Commix sound is clean and hardly revolutionary, although it is slightly darker and, on highlight “Bear Music”, starker. As you might imagine, the pair of genuine vintage ‘90s tracks, from Jonny L and Photek, sound perfectly at home.
Are Commix and Fabriclive going to save drum’n'bass? Well, at the very least, with this mix they’ve brought it back into the public consciousness. They’ve also served a reminder of what made the genre so appealing and, yes, fresh in the first place. Whether that translates into a revival remains to be seen, but at the very least Levings and Brewer have rescued smooth drum’n'bass from the realm of the car commercials.