Goldie isn’t the first drum ‘n’ bass icon to attempt to reassert himself through the Fabric label in recent years. In 2009, LTJ Bukem released a Fabriclive mix after years of relative inaction. It was a fond reminder of the singular sound Bukem created, but also a reminder of how stagnant that sound had become. Now, Goldie is having a go, and the net result is about the same. Even during the glory years of drum ‘n’ bass in the 1990s, some prognosticators predicted the genre would sooner rather than later run out of room to grow. Turns out they were right.
Sixteen years have passed since Goldie’s Timeless, an album whose combination of sharp, choppy breakbeats, atmospheric synthesizers, and soulful vocals lives up to its title. As soon as the follow-up, Saturnz Return, dropped in 1998, though, critics and fans alike were already claiming that Goldie’s sound was played out. The man has continued to soldier on, however, dabbling in various other artforms and helping maintain the Metalheadz record label. A few current Metalheadz tracks feature on Fabriclive 58, joining recent drum ‘n’ bass tracks from various other labels, as well as a few mid-‘90s classics. The new stuff fits right in with the old stuff, and that’s the root of the problem.
If people have been making three-chord pop songs with drums, bass, and guitars for the last 50-plus years, what’s wrong with drum ‘n’ bass that maintains the same basic elements for less than a third of that time? Dance music has always had an unforgiving rate of change, and the coming-of-age of “techno” in the 1990s only accelerated it. Evolution is key. Get moving toward a new subgenre or niche or die. Drum ‘n’ bass, though, has offered precious few glimpses into the future. It has been played with live instruments, has been rapped over, and has become both darker and lighter in tone. But it really has not evolved, and not enough time has passed for the fashion cycle to make it trendy, even fresh, again.
If you haven’t listened to Metalheadz and its style of drum ‘n’ bass in a few years or more, you will be shocked at how little has changed. Not all of these 27 tracks were released on the Metalheadz label, but there’s no question where the inspiration lies. Lots of mean, crackling breakbeats. Synthesizers that sound like lightsabers. Descending, flatulent synth-bass that recalls the flea descending on the original Centipede video game. As ever, most tracks are anchored by a whip-smart, 4/4 snare. Any new wrinkles come in the form of an extra layer of darkness, the occasional white-noise sound effect or jagged synth tone making its way across the speakers.
Fabriclive 58 does offer a couple notable permutations. With “Celestial Navigatoin”, Marcus Intalex displays the good sense to mix the trademark Metalheadz sound with the current fascination for ‘80s synth-pop. The result is more graceful than any of the other new tracks here, the glassy analog synthesizers providing a nice rollback of Goldie’s groundbreaking string embellishments. A-Sides’ “One DJ” also has a techno-pop pulse, while Jubei’s “Alignment” gets a bit of an old-school electro vibe going. Honestly, though, in between it’s like a bunch of synthesizers got into a farting contest. Things reach a ridiculous, comical apex (nadir?) on Mutated Forms’ “Doubts”.
Contrast this with the relatively understated yet powerful synthesizers that hover over Adam F’s classic “Metropolis” and you get a sense of how drum ‘n’ bass lost its way. At its best and most vital, it was the soundtrack to a forthcoming, very stylish alien invasion. Over time, it has become the soundtrack to tame video games and bland television advertisements. The influence of drum ‘n’ bass cannot be ignored. Just pick up an of-the-moment dubstep compilation. Or listen to the chopped up drums on dBridge’s “Cornered” and think of Radiohead’s post-1990s work.
Drum ‘n’ bass, even the Metalheadz style, may undergo a renaissance yet. But Fabriclive 58 isn’t it.