While dubstep is now bigger than Pinch, Kode9, or any of the veteran artists likely ever thought it would be, 2006 represented a productive and well-lit time period for the scene. Like much of what is being done now, dubstep was fresh and diverse four years ago, with each production differing significantly from the next. Underground names and labels were making their way into bigger conversations by the minute. It was a milestone year, and the genre’s enthusiasts saw a wealth of prominent releases filter into their favorite online UK music retailers—Burial, the extensive Tectonic Plates set, Mary Anne Hobbs’ Warrior Dubz, and a backward-looking compilation from Tempa called The Roots of Dubstep. In a matter of years, Burial would be nominated for the Mercury Prize and a remix of La Roux’s “In for the Kill”, produced by 20-something South Londoner Ollie “Skream” Jones would go UK Gold.
Since the 2006 release of Skream!, his mixed-bag debut long player, the pioneering producer has turned out devastatingly provocative dubs, mix sets, and remixes—the later Skreamizm entries, “Trapped in a Dark Bubble”, “Hedd Banger”, “Swarm”, a stinging remix of Zomby’s “Float”, the 2007 BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix, to name a few, as well as the lot that Skream has kept to himself. But the artist’s Outside the Box is only peppered with moments as captivating as what he’s previously produced. In that respect, Skream’s second album has more in common than expected with his first, an outing fit with highs and damning lows, where primal, creative dubstep bumps up against stuff that’s doomed to wallow in lukewarm first gear. Outside ranges from thrilling, grandiose scattershot garage to electronic pop so unremarkable you’ll need a reminder that Skream had anything to do with putting it together.
In its swirling tones and cinema-sized build, warm, techno opener “Perforated” will register with more of Skream’s frequent advocates than the pair-up with West Coast MC Murs will. Usually at the top of his game, Murs laces dull plodder “8-Bit Baby” with run-of-the-mill boasts and a few obvious allusions to Brit slang to liven the material. Outside‘s guest spots are plentiful, and like “8-Bit Baby”, they’re generally disappointments. La Roux returns for “Finally”, which launches amid tribal percussion and rumbling atmospherics, but cools from there. Soon enough, “Finally” is Skream’s admirable but off-putting attempt to access her biggest fans, with inoffensive synth strings and an overcooked operatic rock chorus sturdily intact. “How Real” features vocals from Freckles that are indulgently Auto-Tuned past any tolerable point. The result is mere club pop, with stuttering and randomly pitched-up choruses dangling atop Skream’s hard and once potent breakbeats. After numerous experiences with this track, I’m shocked at how entirely devoid it is of the appeal I regularly associate with Skream. It might even be unrewarding enough for American radio or some Internet-hyped DJ team who’ve taken to stringing together a nonsensical group of consonants in lieu of formulating an actual stage name. “Where You Should Be”, on the other hand, is beautiful. It’s soulful and busy, strewn with lush organ grooves and a tastefully coded robo-vocal from singer Sam Frank. In line with recent efforts put forth in Darkstar’s studio, you could say it’s like “hearing circuitry cry.”
Were the title not already taken, “Listenin’ to the Records on My Wall” could’ve very reasonably been tagged “The Last Epic Song”, but the latter is used for a surging, dense closer. “Listenin’” is one of 2010’s strongest bass records, a jungle stormer with ever-spiraling synths and lovely overdramatic pauses. In its engaging melody and spirited set of beats, “Listenin’” might even serve as one of Skream’s most powerfully enduring tracks. Alongside gems “Pitfall” and “Dark Light” from Freeizm, the set of free, web-only pre-Outside teaser EPs that Skream made available via his Twitter account, “Listenin’” harnesses the same drive as the artist’s reliably explosive live appearances.
In the wee hours of one September Saturday in 2009, Skream drove a crowd in NYC’s Greenwich Village to the brink of earblown catastrophe. He helmed a much-anticipated set during the three-year anniversary party for the city’s popular Trouble & Bass events. Longtime friend and collaborator Benga played no small part in catapulting the room toward hysteria, with Skream pulling dubs from his ample catalog as well as the work of other UK bass purveyors.
The emptying of each expensive beer served up a Kodak moment, to say the least, with hordes of people nearly toppling one another to reach the stage and stand alongside the slim producer, while all of the room’s inert material buzzed and hummed against the shards of sub bass and rushing textures. Skream was at the center of the storm, manning a laptop as well as other various gear, while he whipped himself into a frenzy as palpable as the one he’d encouraged in the crowd. On Outside the Box, he hits a note or two that’s just as extraordinary, but the intention to reach a much larger audience than the one going bonkers last September chokes the sophomore album, so that the energy is reined in at safe, conservative levels. The more things change, the more they stay the same.