Not many DJs leave as great a mark on their chosen genre as LTJ Bukem has. Think drum ‘n’ bass, and if his name isn’t the first one that pops into your head, it’s the second or third. In the mid-to-late 1990s, Bukem invented and popularized a smooth, atmospheric, jazz-tinged alternative to noisy hardcore drum ‘n’ bass. With 1996’s essential Logical Progression compilation as an unofficial launching point, this “ambient” or “intelligent” drum ‘n’ bass came to be a genre onto itself.
Bukem took his knocks. His sound was often dismissed as too safe and watered-down, a sort of electronica equivalent of smooth jazz. Actually, it was cutting-edge, dynamic, and beautiful. Over the years, through countless releases on Bukem’s Good Looking label, this sound reached the saturation point. More troubling, perhaps, was it didn’t change much. One interesting touch was the addition of MCs, notably MC Conrad, who rapped over the soundscapes. A little of this went a long way. Bukem dabbled in downtempo styles and even released an “artist album”, 2000’s Journey Inwards, which touched on a variety of influences. But, as the years passed and drum ‘n’ bass in general stagnated, the Good Looking sound has become a thing of the past. Electronic music has little tolerance for stasis, and Bukem’s sound was set in stone.
Bukem responded by keeping a relatively low profile. He didn’t release any original work between 2004 and 2008. Good Looking all but shut down, taking what Bukem has described as an extended “holiday”. Smart moves. Especially in the fickle UK, absence makes the ears, not to mention the media, grow fonder. The cat-and-mouse game can work wonders. Fabriclive 46 is his highest-profile release in a decade, and aims to “re-establish” Bukem and his trademark sound to a new generation of listeners. So far, so good. Fabriclive 46 has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with phrases such as “a welcome return” in great supply.
The good news and the bad news is this. Bukem’s basic sound still remains intact. Though he’s corralled a fresh new stable of smooth drum ‘n’ bass practitioners, most Good Looking signings, were Fabriclive 46 date-stamped 1999, very few people would raise an eyebrow. The opener, Greg Packer’s “People’s Music”, is full of sounds Good Looking acolytes will find familiar. The expansive arrangement, underpinned by a deep bass line and clattering percussion, is highlighted by typically lush synth pads and filter effects. This is Bukem saying, “I’m back, and I’m not going to fix what wasn’t broken!”
Over the next 17 tracks, you’d have to listen pretty carefully to hear anything that wasn’t on display in those seminal 1990s mixes. But Fabriclive 46 does reward careful listening. After a couple tracks, those synth pads are out of play until late in the mix. Early highlight “Eerie Indiana” by Furrey introduces a straight-up dub bass line. Tracks like Villem’s “Inflated Tear” and Eveson’s “Kodama” feature heavier, more abstract breaks and dive-bombing bass. Also, Bukem does well to include tracks that reference the drum ‘n’ bass/hip-hop/reggae hybrid “dubstep” style, whose existence owes something to Bukem’s work. Several tracks, including Paul SG’s “Sweet and Fresh” and Furney’s “Jambaleno” take in the whirling, high-pitched, more “dirty” sound of dubstep. Aside from some rough, flow-killing cutting on Paul SG’s “Lay Down”, Bukem integrates it all seamlessly. That snapping snare holds things down throughout, leaving no doubt as to whose mix you’re listening to.
Late in the mix, Bukem does hit on a possible new direction for his trademark style. Even the most aggressive Good Looking tracks have sounded upbeat or at least maintained a non-threatening, positive vibe. This quality has actually been the source of much criticism of the Bukem sound. However, Tayla’s “Turn It Around” replaces the simpatico vibe with fluttering, decidedly uneasy strings, along with some menacing wah-wah guitar. The next track, Locksmith’s “I’m Not Where You Are”, takes the idea even further, creating a deeply moody, minor-key atmosphere that suggests Antonio Badalamenti’s work with David Lynch. It’s a minor wrinkle, perhaps, but an encouraging one. Maybe Bukem hasn’t said all he has to say, after all.
Love him or hate him, with Fabriclive 46 LTJ Bukem has announced that he’s back. This is certainly among his most focused, consistently engaging efforts. Without the context of all the seemingly endless Progression Session and Points In Time compilations which eventually spread the Good Looking sound too thin, Bukem’s brand of drum ‘n’ bass sounds fresh once again. Whether he can match the efforts of younger drum ‘n’ bass revivalists like Commix remains to be seen. At the very least, Fabriclive 46 will thrill longtime fans, make some new ones, and give Bukem’s reputation a deserved rehabilitation.
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