Drum’n'bass is a genre defined by limitations. Despite—or perhaps because of—the initial rush of popularity that heralded the genre’s arrival on the pop scene in the late ‘90s, the ensuing years have seen the music unilaterally reject the trappings and appearances of pop success in a mad rush back to the underground.
In his recent PopMatters review of Klute’s Breakbeat Science: Exercise Three mix, John Bergstrom stated it best. “Even within the dance music subculture,” he wrote, “drum’n'bass is increasingly seen as on the decline, a music that has peaked in popularity and creativity and is dying a slow, quiet death.” Jungle producers and audiences have brought this dismal fate upon themselves.
Electronic music represents unbelievably fertile ground for most artists. The elastic nature at the heart of the idiom encourages—some would say demands—incessant and far-ranging cross-pollination. Like a shark, electronic music thrives on speed, absorbing and consuming influences and movements in order to survive. By regarding any stylistic departure from the increasingly narrow established generic parameters as an apostasy worthy of excommunication, drum’n'bass has effectively written it’s own expiration date as a going cultural concern. As Bergstrom very fittingly quoted jungle producer Jonny Global, AKA Penetrator: “if Drum N’ Bass is only allowed to stay ‘Drums and Bass’ without seriously crossing up with other genres, how can it really grow?”
Sometimes electronic music genres die—it’s happened within the last decade to ambient and hardcore, and the last time I looked old-skool trip-hop was on life support as well. Perhaps the time has come to put drum’n'bass on the endangered species list.
Unfortunately, DJ Dara’s The Antidote, while a perfectly competent mix, presents little that will change that. The promotional materials present The Antidote as a break from the established trends in D&B, a figurative “antidote” to the increasingly dark “sick” sounds that fill the record bags of most jungle enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the difference in tone will be imperceptible to all but the most knowledgeable trainspotters.
The first track, SKC’s “Source”, builds slowly from a sparse, almost techno introduction, but it isn’t long before the farting synthetic basslines rear their ugly head. The next few tracks are essentially good, especially the rather ominously “You Don’t Need To Know” by You Don’t Need to Know Who Did This, but even given the best tracks, the mix falls into the same traps that have dogged drum’n'bass for years.
There is no modulation, there is nothing to temper the endless repetition of hardcore drums loops and sinister basslines. Even on a supposedly “dance-oriented” mix such as this has a hard time escaping the fact that every track is within the very small range of between 156-165 BPM, and they all have the same sort of rampaging breakbeat. In the past D&B producers have gotten past this handicap by mixing the jungle beats with other elements, such as vocals or jazz instrumentation or rapping. Roni Size & Reprazent made a career—not to mention one of the most influential albums in electronic music, “New Forms”—out of doing just that. But we must remember that even Size had to excise those elements from his music in order to stay “relevant” with 2002’s inferior Touching Down.
There are a few bright spots. Another Breakbeat Science artist, High Contrast, almost single-handedly reinvigorated D&B with the release of 2002’s True Colors. But unfortunately, the buzz from True Colors lasted about as long as it took to listen to the album in entirety, as the inclusive and forward-thinking elements High Contrast celebrated were roundly ignored by the scene at large. There are a few tracks on The Antidote that point to a more inclusive future for the genre, such as D-Kay’s “It’s on the Way”, which features an actual honest-to-Gosh female vocal.
As the mix progresses, Dara attempts to build intensity towards a climactic finish. The problem is that the tracks are already so amped to begin with that any “build” is only relative. As I said, unless you are already an aficionado, the variations between selected tracks will almost certainly be invisible. For instance, the Cookie Monster mix of Kathy Brown’s “Share the Blame” would probably scandalize your average junglist because of the small poppy vocal sample on which the song is built. To the average listener, it wouldn’t sound much different from the previous eleven tracks.
I like Breakage’s “Disco 45”, because it’s a very nostalgic track, full of ‘ardcore synth farts right off the Prodigy’s Experience album and with a pleasingly analog drum sample. It reminds me of when D&B was fun, before everyone disappeared into their navels and tried to become humorless androids. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about the hard slap of a sped-up James Brown sample—this has been forgotten by a generation of producers who want nothing more than to tear the music apart from the corrupting elements of funk and jazz.
But funk and jazz are the best parts of drum’n'bass.
The album ends on a high note, with Mathematic’s “Here and Now”. It’s a wonderful track, with a house-influenced keyboard loop and a few soulful vocal bits set atop an analog drum sample. There’s even what sounds like a funky Hammond sample crawling underneath the mix. If the entire album had showed this kind of interest, perhaps I would have liked it better.
But as it is, I have to say that The Antidote is a disappointment. There’s nothing objectively wrong with it, as such, but it’s a grim reminder that drum’n'bass has probably reached the point of no return. If even good producers like Dara can’t tell what went wrong, nothing can staunch the flow of blood.