At this risk of inciting a Deadmau5 tweet war for using a drug metaphor in the context of electronic music, the EDM genre often suffers diminishing returns. You always need another hit that’s better than the last. Once an artist has polished off a single, engineered it to perfection and released it to the public with a fresh or challenging new sound, they’ve already set the bar for their next release as well as that of their peers. It’s too easy and far too damning to repeat what you’ve already done and worse to repeat what others are doing. Don’t let the dancing, sweating neon horde fool you - they’re a fickle and demanding bunch of fans. The dance floor is moving and shifting in more ways than one.
A more analogue artist, by comparison, can get away with a body of work played with the same instruments, speeds, patterns, and even riffs and the subtleties of the art will ensure a new sound even if only by accident. But there are rarely such accidents among professional electronic music producers. The Digital Audio Workstation is an exacting tool. Ninja Tune has been really good at spotlighting those that work hard at pushing it, being whatever is next. With artists like Bonobo, DJ Food, Mr. Scruff and Amon Tobin on the roster they’ve made a habit of moving forward and with ground-breaking and critically lauded results. It’s for this reason that DJ Kentaro’s Contrast was so disappointing.
Originally from Japan, DJ Kentaro came to notoriety as a turntablist, the first Asian to win the globally recognized DMC in 2002 - the world’s largest DJ battle. From there he quickly amassed a portfolio of singles, acclaimed DJ mixes and remixes for prominent international artists. With that in mind you might expect Contrast to reflect the work of such a solid turntablist, veteran producer, and if you’re lucky, innovator. What you get instead is a grab-bag of formula singles which together play like an EDM museum of styles that have been popular over the last two to three years. Glitch Hop—Check. Drum ‘n’ Bass—Check. Dubstep—Check. Electro—check. It’s all here, but all executed with terminal mediocrity. It may be that this is a concept album - the concept being ‘cover my basses’. Even after several listens, I found this record simply reminded me of other similar artists who have already delivered what he’s aiming for here - and better.
“Torus (Oto)” opens the record with 50 seconds of mounting tribal drums and dramatic synths which decay into “Kikkake feat DJ Krush”, an instrumental stew of rhythm samples played over a slow boom-bip. The scribbles and cuts do make an appearance on this track but if this is where Kentaro is placing his signature, it’s practically lost in the mix. There’s a lot going on here but it fails to gel into anything sticky.
“Higher” begins very promisingly with some quickly paced synths which moments later get stripped and humiliated by the “Take me higher!” of the wailing diva. When are we going to stop with that? Are they still raving in Japan? He tries to save it by laying over some North American-style tweaked bass wobbles but they just don’t seem as meaty as what we’ve gotten used to with the likes of Excision, Skrillex, and Bare. He’s clearly aiming for that hard sound but missing the mark. As a result it falls completely flat. If you’re going to do dubstep or electro in 2012 and be noticed, it’s either going to have to pass through the room with the cold chill of a ghost or jump out of the dark and do something very, very violent. This track is loitering on a park bench in that end of town.
“North South East West feat. Matrix and Futurebound” sounds like about a half a dozen other drum ‘n’ bass tracks that charted on Beatport last year. It came as no surprise that when I dug into my collection to refresh my memory, one of the tracks I was thinking of was none other than “Get Shakey” by Matrix and Futurebound. I don’t think they even changed the instrument library when they loaded up his stems and slept-walked through this.
Next we come to what for me was the absolute low point. If you’re a fan of UK rap duo Foreign Beggers (disclosure: I am not), you’ll love this. It is utterly indistinguishable from everything they’ve ever done but for their shout-out to Kentaro. I get it though… this is the shout-out to the UK massive. You are nobody in the world of underground electronic music unless you’ve got a single featuring Foreign Beggers. “It’s all in the game.” Look for their appearance on a Madonna track any day now.
If you’ve been paying attention you might have already seen this coming but the next track is of course, the jump-up track featuring the patois vocals. MC Zulu does a great job but sadly the production on the track does nothing to highlight it. Even copious use of the phrase “Bod Mon!” won’t pull this track up off the couch. We’ve heard this before. “Fire Is On” featuring Fire Ball absolutely drowns in autotune and though it finally finds its way to some ear-pleasing bass wobbles, I have to be honest… I can’t get by the Autotune. This track will be skipped over like a pothole on subsequent listens.
“Lapis Lazuli” is the first track on the entire album which made me sit up and take notice. This time, I was reminded of Noisia and though that’s a compliment of sorts, it’s a poor approximation of Noisia and at 2 minutes and 13 seconds, merely filler. A teaser of what might have been if Kentaro weren’t already packing clubs with what is.
When I received the record my eyes immediately caught the reference to Kid Koala on track nine, “Crossfader”. As disappointing as it’s been so far, it’s all been leading up to this moment and unfortunately the trend continues. If this is Kid Koala then he phoned in the mix over a long distance connection. I appreciate that he’s throwing Kentaro a bone here but this two-minute scratch-up of electro samples, while ultimately enjoyable is more flash in the pan than treasure.
Played straight down the middle, there are people who will like this record. They’re the sort of people who say they want to see how far they can take it and then choose Burger King over McDonalds. That may seem an odd thing to say given Kentaro’s pedigree but I think his undeniable skills as a turntablist and producer are evident in previous work and all the more reason why an audience might reasonably expect more.