In 2011, it has become easy to refer to nearly all forms of popular electronic music as dubstep, but as with any subculture that’s hardly the case. Dubstep began fracturing almost as soon as Burial brought the term to mainstream attention, especially as it gained traction in the U.S. and vacated most of its previous connections to dub reggae and two-step in favour of, well, wobbles. Of the original vanguard of dubstep pioneers, it was Joker and his Kapsize label that I was always mot interested to hear. Part of that was his sparse work record – roughly one single and one EP per year, each of them among the best the scene had to offer – and part of it was his formation of an entirely new subgenre of dubstep called the Purple Sound. The Purple Sound is rooted in Wonky (a fusion of dubstep and hip-hop ala Nosaj Thing or Flying Lotus) with many audible references to g-funk and video game music. At their best, Purple Sound producers are the faction that makes the most easily digestible form of the genre, with a heavy emphasis on groove and bluntedness that’s perfect for long drives or relaxed get-togethers.
The Vision comes nearly five years after Joker first became a household name in the dubstep community, and it’s a little baffling why we had to wait so long for his first full length if it was going to be his least inspired work to date. The album begins with an “epic” intro culled straight from the playbook of Nero’s massive Welcome Reality before slapping us in the face with the wholly uninspired house track “Here Come the Lights”. It’s the sort of bland, single-aspiring black hole of a record you’d expect on a single artist’s attempt at an album, but it feels especially hollow coming from Joker, a guy who’s never come close to sounding so dull and afraid of making a mark. Meanwhile, “Tron” – a classic Joker track full of ever-evolving bass rhythms and some killer texture work on the mid-range – is a smart business decision. It’s just that listeners, particularly old fans, are left wondering which Joker we’re going to get the rest of the way.
Mostly, we get the one from “Here Come the Lights”, although he does make a point to try a little harder on the musical side of things. We get to hear underground rappers and faceless vocalists all try their hands at Joker’s thunderous concoctions, but it’s not often they feel of any real use or necessity. “The Vision” sees Jessie Ware somewhat capable, but, in the face of the remix version featuring a verse from American rap titan Freddie Gibbs, the regular version we get on the album feels like a major let down. Gibbs also impresses in ways the guys from the U.K. like Buggsy and Scarz seem incapable of. He acts as the beat’s god-like equal, engaging it in a boxing match of linguistic flexibility while maintaining a bit of humanity. Whereas the guys who should sound more at home in this environment feel like some guys going through their motions, sticking to the same topics and cadences you’ve heard on a hundred other grime records. They’re indistinguishable from their peers. When it comes to the other crooners, “Electric Sea” is a stunning slab of dullness (and N.E.R.D.ery) and “On My Mind” feels like Joker and William Cartwright trying to revive the Timbaland + Ginuwine template and landing with a thud on a throwaway bit of album filler rather than a certified smash hit.
It’s a shame because the production stays pretty favourable throughout The Vision, even if it disappoints against the expectations set by his previous work. “Level 6” is a fun nod to the goofier side of the Purple Sound, all bleeps and bloops that feel lifted from an SNES sound card while “Magic Causeway” feels like the sort of listenable, promotable track we’ve come to expect from the Joker & Ginz collaboration. “Milky Way” is also an interesting foray into the video game sound, retaining most of Joker’s Wonky sensibilities while also boldly impersonating a Yasunori Mitsuda sort of composition. “My Trance Girl” finds him expanding his template a little as well, with the results working out much better than his nods to house that kicked off the album (perhaps due to the lack of a vocalist). In many ways, it’s the most ambitious thing he’s ever done, in both scope and length. But these high points are followed by a succession of vocalists that feel like distractions and nothing more, causing The Vision to struggle mightily to the finish line. What should have been a defining moment for the Purple Sound on a micro level and Dubstep on a macro level is instead just kind of fun, kind of not. Most disappointingly, it sounds like the sort of album any number of B-list producers would be convinced to make, not someone as pioneering and consistent as Joker was just a couple of years ago.
There’s another classic Joker EP in here. It’s just a shame we couldn’t get our first classic Joker album.
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