Listening to drum and bass is like watching a major-league baseball game: tedious and repetitive, unless you get yourself worked up about the minute details.
For a style with more than a decade of continual evolution, drum and bass has not branched far from its original roots as an offshoot of the UK hardcore scene of the early ‘90s. It is still a genre best suited for aficionados, who recognize and care deeply about the differences between techstep, hardstep, artcore, and darkside.
Despite the infinite diversity in infinite combinations of d’n'b, it’s still a style that progresses slowly, if at all. Comparing mixes from the mid-‘90s to those of today the only striking differences are the replacement of reggae bass and vocal samples with fuzzed-out synth and even more spastic beats.
So kudos are deserved for Philadelphia d’n'b entrepreneur Dieselboy. His latest release, The Dungeonmaster’s Guide, is a mix-disc that attempts to introduce new styles to the d’n'b universe.
Taking as its leaping-off point Dieselboy’s pride in his nerdy past as a gamer, the album starts with an introduction by Peter Cullen, whom alert Gen-Xers will recognize as the voice of Optimus Prime, the leader of the ‘80s cartoon The Transformers. Nerdy, indeed. But the stated goal of the album is to survey new terrain, “like an epic adventure across a varied and rugged soundscape.” Dieselboy proposes to do this by weaving d’n'b remixes of techno, house, and trance tracks into his set. It’s an ambitious goal, if only because d’n'b purists are likely to circle the wagons, possibly to protect themselves from trance-listening orcs and wyverns.
Taken on its face, without the promotional materials’ ambitious claims, Dieselboy has made yet another excellent d’n'b mix with The Dungeonmaster’s Guide. He mixes in relatively diverse songs, from the guitars and vocals of “Soul on Fire” to the undeniably darkside groove of Raiden’s “Infection”. The album is as easy to get completely absorbed in as it is to keep in rotation as background sounds. But as an attempt to expand the borders of drum and bass production, The Dungeonmaster’s Guide makes only a few halting steps, albeit steps in an promising direction.
If anything pertaining to drum and bass can be described as “gentle,” then Dieselboy surely uses a gentle touch with this disc. Of the 18 tracks on the first disc (the retail version will also feature a bonus EP of remixes by members of Dieselboy’s HUMAN label), only four are tracks originally by artists who work outside the drum and bass medium. He phases these tracks in slowly, between original d’n'b songs and remixes of the same.
This phase-in is so subtle that you have to be paying pretty close attention to even notice the difference. And unless you’re reading the track listing, you won’t even know you’re listening to “Knowledge of Self” by house/trance striver BT, the remix by Evol Intent having stripped any non-d’n'b elements from the song. You may as well not look for any change of sound until the last quarter of the disc.
There is a delicate art to the remix, an aesthetic balancing that separates a great new track from simple ProTools abuse. When the aspiration is to blend two disparate musical styles, at the very least some recognizable elements of each must remain. Only two tracks on The Dungeonmaster’s Guide manage to accomplish this. The Paul B + Subwave remix of DJ Tiësto’s “Flight 643” is self-assured enough to leave the original track’s chirpy synths and hallelujah breaks while making it d’n'b in every other sense.
The album closes out with the Ill Skillz Remix of Dumonde’s “Human”, without question the highlight of the mix. The track manages to preserve the anthemic keyboards of the German trance duo’s original record while enhancing its pounding drum line with a d’n'b breakbeat attack. It is, at long last, what this album is supposed to be about: a fantastic bridge between two styles. Between the sheer energy of the drums and the uplifting keys that are a hallmark of trance music, this new version of “Human” provides a glimpse of what this album should have been, and hopefully stakes out the path for the next step in this style evolution.