In addition to their collective duty as Emperor Sly, Rod Lambert, Stu Lambert, and Sarah Davis oversee the workings of Zip Dog Records, one the UK’s premier stables for heterogeneous, cutting-edge, electronic dance beats.
Over the past few years, the Chesham-based hive of sonic activity has been lauded in particular for a number of compilation albums featuring emerging artists alongside such diverse talents as Fatboy Slim, Asian Dub Foundation, Leftfield, Joi, Transglobal Underground, Dreadzone, Roni Size, and the Mad Professor. Most notable, perhaps, are the two ongoing compilation series Global Explorer and Club Meets Dub, on which the neophytes and the old hands trade beats, do their own thing and even remix each other.
Indeed, “club meets dub” is a useful working definition—albeit simplified—of the aural experience of Emperor Sly’s Sparking Up, originally released in the UK in 1997 as the follow up to Heavy Rotation (1995). In these times of ever proliferating genres and sub-genres of what was once simply called dance music, Sparking Up is a genre-busting album that deftly mixes up myriad techno categories with a heavy and healthy dose of dub production.
Punctuated with sampled one-line vocals, the hard-edged, skittering and frenetic rhythms of “FreedomRightNow” get the proceedings off to a frantic start at around 180 bpm. In much the same way, “Ganja Smokin’” keeps up the breakneck pace, its driving frenzy evoking another drug entirely. While the openers are, arguably, representative of variants of electronica that are constructed with more attention to busy, brainy surfaces and compressed spaces rather than depth and texture, Emperor Sly soon begin to reveal their versatility as the album gravitates toward a fuller, more integrated sound.
The tempo begins to subside on “Blood Rising” as Emperor Sly’s dub roots—which have thus far been compacted and accelerated—declare themselves more explicitly, paving the way for some of the more engaging cuts such as the layered “Eyes of a Ghost,” the down-tempo nodder “The Weight of Sin,” and the hypnotic “E.E.K.” On these tracks the tight, impenetrable structures and patterns of techno are eased apart with dub to create an altogether heavier, multi-dimensional vibe.
With the bouncing, digital dub of “Mandrill” and the massive “Tuff to the Rootz”—a funky dub-hop epic which mutates into its own remix—Emperor Sly bring the proceedings to a grand-scale close that underscores the depth and range of the album’s hybrid identity.
All in all, Sparking Up is an energetic, dubtronic masterpiece that leaves no style unsampled, and no sample unstoned.