SBTRKT is a greatest hits of 2011's most popular underground sounds.
It would be fair to say that for dance music, 2011 is the year that brought back the art of “glitch”. From the unfriendly drones of Sound of 2011 high-flyers James Blake and Jamie Woon, to the further influence of dubstep on unsuspecting chart music both sides of the Atlantic, it’s no secret that this year, to slow down the tempo, dim the lights and confuse your listeners is the way to go.
And as with a lot of this years UK dance releases, such as the classy debuts of Katy B and Jamie Woon, SBTRKT has one eye on the commercial dance scene and one on the underground. However, it’s a move that is obviously made with commercial success in mind. With SBTRKT’s 2020 EP, he developed his own dreamy brand of lo-fi house music, with hints of 2-step garage. It was a strong, distinctive release, but a release that failed to endear him to the massive UK dubstep/garage scene. As a reaction, SBTRKT has done his homework, and come up with a major release with commercial credibility, sadly leaving his deep house roots behind.
But there’s no denying that the talented SBTRKT’s debut record is a smart commercial move, being something of a greatest hits of 2011’s most popular underground sounds. However, one immediately notices that there are a lot of far-from-subtle head-nods to his peers in dub. The jittery hiccupping rhythms of “Something Goes Right” is the most obvious nod to Jamie xx, although the vocals distract from this, with their disarming similarity to the warble of previously mentioned James Blake. Sampha’s cracked and whispery performance on the melancholic “Hold On” is also glaringly reminiscent of the Sound of 2011 runner up. Elsewhere, the ominous basslines of “Never Never” and “Right Thing to Do” have Skream and Benga written all over them.
It isn’t quite fair to say that SBTRKT is just looking over the shoulders of today’s stars of dubstep, desperately seeking a way in. The breakneck glitch beat of “Heatwave” is very Flying Lotus, and “Pharaohs” is the nearest thing to the SBTRKT of 2020, a surprisingly successful dalliance into modern synth pop. However, the only track that really impresses is single “Wildfire”. This is not in small part down to the vocals of Little Dragon front woman Yukimi Nagano. Her voice is loose and haunting yet silky, effortlessly riding SBTRKT’s niggling itch of a bassline and sparse beats and making the track her own. Future collaborations are surely nothing short of essential.
“Wildfire” aside however, it is clear that SBTRKT’s ‘reinvented’ persona is a confused and not entirely developed one. “Wildfire” is a sign that there is space for SBTRKT as a post-dubstep artist, but there are just not enough original sounds here to warrant enough of an identity for SBTRKT to make that transition from ‘great producer’ to ‘great artist’.
It needs to be made clear that SBTRKT is not a bad record by any means. The production is flawless, and there are definitely some addictive tracks here that would stand well on their own outside of the record, such as the colossal synth arpeggios of superior second half club-friendly tracks “Ready Set Loop” and “Go Bang”. But on the whole, a lot of the material here, whilst well produced and well written, is sadly not outstanding enough to challenge the firmly seated royalty of UK dance music just yet.