Drum & bass used to matter. The genre peaked in the mid-to-late ‘90s, thriving in both the mainstream and the underground. Pop artists from Lamb to Buckethead to Everything but the Girl utilized d&b’s skittery beats; while at clubs and raves, the d&b rooms poured forth a universe of edgier sounds. There was the hip-hop-influenced attitude of hardstep, the deep atmospherics of LTJ Bukem, the surgical beats of Photek and Source Direct, the ganja-tinged vibes of Roni Size and Krust, and the growing rumbles of a dark new sound, techstep. The artform seemed to mutate by the week, as producers pushed their equipment to extremes, and DJ’s competed to drop the freshest, newest sounds on dubplate.
With his gold teeth and larger-than-life personality, Goldie became d&b’s most visible face. A former breakdancer and graffiti artist, he immersed himself in England’s burgeoning early ‘90s breakbeat scene. On the pop side, the scene yielded hip-hop and soul artists like Soul II Soul and Massive Attack. On the dancefloor side, DJ’s began to layer sped-up breakbeats over 4/4 house beats, resulting in a hybrid with many names (“jungle techno”, “hardcore”, “drum & bass”). Goldie started producing tunes in this style, resulting in the seminal single “Terminator”. In 1995, with the help of producer / engineer Rob Playford, he released Timeless, an album so ahead of its time that it still sounds advanced now. Crucial to Timeless was technology such as “timestretching” (which allowed vocals to sustain seemingly forever) and sampling techniques which shredded and reconstituted drums into pointillist patterns. The album was a truly futuristic soul manifesto, complete with stunning graffiti art by Goldie.
On top of the d&b heap was Goldie’s Metalheadz label. With its instantly recognizable headphones-on-skull logo, the label amassed an amazing discography unmatched in diversity and excellence. Seductive rollers, apocalyptic bangers, and abstract experimentation all found a home on the label, with the only prerequisite being high quality. Early Metalheadz records fetch a fortune now, but thankfully the first two Platinum Breakz compilations contain the label’s crown jewels. Tunes like Alex Reece’s “Pulp Fiction”, Dillinja’s “The Angels Fell”, Adam F’s “Metropolis”, and Optical’s “To Shape the Future” are revelatory, both on the dancefloor and in headphones. If ever there were a Metalheadz trademark, it would be listenability outside the dancefloor context.
As the distorted basslines and menacing vibes of techstep began to dominate d&b in the late ‘90s, dancefloors lost interest. Production techniques had become quite sophisticated, but clubbers and fickle journalists defected to two-step garage, which repackaged the beats and basslines of d&b in a more accessible manner. D&b reacted by returning to the more soulful sounds that had fueled its rise (trance / progressive house is another genre that has undergone similar cycles of dark and light). However, the move was calculated and it felt so. One reason was that the music had become too fast. Tunes were regularly 170-180 beats per minute, as opposed to the 150-160 typical of d&b’s early days. At these high speeds, the intricate drum fusillades of before would have been incomprehensible, so producers stripped down to simpler, looped beats. Since 2001, “soulful” d&b has consisted of different fads (Brazilian music, disco, dub) on top of fast, repetitive beats; someone once described the sound as deep house at Minor Threat speed. Of course, the result isn’t soulful or sexy, and Metalheadz’ latest compilation, MDZ.O5 is emblematic of what’s wrong with d&b today—flawless production, little creativity, and virtually no soul.
Disc one of this compilation is almost unlistenable, featuring unmixed tracks with long, repetitive intros and outros for DJ use. Disc two is Goldie’s DJ mix of these tracks, and it’s more palatable. His mixing is smooth and functional, but there’s not much a DJ can do with material like this. Beta 2’s “Closer to You” and OB1’s “Jasmine Nights” are syrupy and shallow, with a limp hip-hop break marring the latter. Whereas Metalheadz classics like Peshay’s “Predator” and Ed Rush’s “The Raven” were cavernous explorations of darkness, tunes here like Outrage’s “No Compromise” and Skitty’s “Ruffness” are noisy, pointless exercises in beating people over the head. Digital’s “Scam” starts promisingly with filtered techno stabs and wildly percussive drums, but bangs on and on for over eight minutes. Goldie’s own “Say You Love Me” is disappointingly retro-fetishist, with old school rave stabs and more skull-pounding. There are a few bright spots, like the irresistibly bongo-filled “Can’t See the Grooves” by Klute and the wistful “Sunstreak” by Drifter, an alias of Noisia, a Dutch collective of some of the few d&b producers today still pushing boundaries (others include Fanu, Sileni, Seba, and Paradox, none of which appear here). Otherwise, there’s nothing here that wasn’t already happening three years ago in d&b.
Somewhere along the line, Metalheadz stopped leading and started following. The quality control on its singles began to slip, and the quality of its vinyl pressings markedly decreased. And it’s not a good sign when one’s work ten years ago is more advanced than one’s work now. Timeless and the first two Platinum Breakz compilations are infinitely more creative, futuristic, and soulful than MDZ.05. The production here is impeccable and will no doubt move many a dancefloor. But this is purely club music with no depth to last through time. Metalheadz has always been the Cadillac of d&b labels; if this is the state of the art, then the artform is in sorry shape.
// Notes from the Road
"A-WA's debut album Habib Galbi made NPR Music's '30 Favorite Albums of 2016 (So Far)' list.READ the article