It would probably be erroneous to read the title of Klute’s latest release as any sort of political statement on the current state of drum & bass. Perhaps there was a time when the future of the genre may have seemed doubtful, but for now the music has settled into a leisurely second wind, a creative renaissance typified by artists such as High Contrast, London Elektricity and Klute. Will it ever achieve the critical momentum it enjoyed in the late 90s, when overenthusiastic pop critics rushed to crown it the “new jazz”? Probably not, but that was just asking for trouble.
Such a label is uselessly reductive, offensive to both jazz and drum & bass. The purists can hem and haw all day, but jazz seems to periodically renew itself just fine—thanks to the infusion of new modes such as rock, hip-hop and drum & bass, but in no way dependent on them. Similarly, while some drum & bass may celebrate a cerebral musicianship similar to certain types of jazz, it would be foolhardy to mistake this kind of intellectual response for the sole epitome of the genre. As with all dance music, the cerebral response is inextricably tied to the physical—an involuntary reaction to the whoosing and whirring of a rolling bassline.
The dichotomy between the body and the mind is very much at the heart of No One’s Listening Anymore. The album is actually two discs, each a separate and distinct statement. The second disc is pure drum & bass, but the first disc is anything but. Tom Withers, the man behind Klute, grew up on acid house and straight techno, and the first disc is a tribute to those sounds. The tempo is more restrained, and some of the hooks are downright poppy. It’s a revealing statement in a scene that often prides itself on conformity.
The problem is that the disc is not, perhaps, as distinctive a statement as could be wished for. Shorn of the ironclad support of a brisk tempo, Withers’ beats can sometimes seem less than compelling. The disc gets off to a strong start with “Torrential Plain”, a melancholy trip-hop track slightly redolent of late Everything But The Girl or Lamb, albeit with the type of rolling, organic bassline you would expect from Layo & Bushwacka. “Torrential Plain” is followed by “Al Kinda”, which despite the underwhelming name, is perhaps the best track on the disc. It’s got the power of the best drum & bass strapped to a Detroit techno rhythm, a monstrous bassline and a stuttering techno beat. It’s the kind of music that first-generation trip-hop groups like Smith & Mighty used to make, with the best parts of dub reggae transposed onto a violent electronic context.
The major weakness of No One’s Listening Anymore are its vocals. Klute has scoured the globe to find just the right vocalists for this project, but unfortunately they all seem to sound the same, with similarly breathy baby-girl voices. Vocal credits are somewhat haphazard, so I don’t know who sings on either “Torrential Plain” or “Al Kinda”. While neither voice ruins the tracks in question, they certainly don’t add a lot.
“Al Kinda” is followed by “Adult”, a rousing attempt at 1980s-era electro, definitely reminiscent of Afrika Baambaataa and Cybotron. “No Return” is the album’s most uncharacteristic track, a feint into the realms of conventional pop that would perhaps have been more effective with a more convincing vocalist. “Off Out Up and Under” the first disc’s only drum & bass track, but it’s unusual—an exercise in mood that reminds me slightly of LTJ Bukem.
The album finishes on a strong foot. “Does the Darkness make you Feel Sad?” is a breakbeat track in the vein of a slightly more funky Orbital, with a rhythmic bed that builds to a majestically coruscating climax. “Coconut Teaser” is a strange track that vaguely reminds me of some of Herbie Hancock’s electronic work, simply by nature of the Hammond-esque melodic bassline he employs. “I’ll Do Anything (you want me to)” finishes the first disc on an optimistic note, with swooshing, orchestral synthesizer melodies offset against another rock-solid techno template. Again, while it’s hardly the most unique template, it is consistently effective.
The second disc kicks into motion with the sinister, rolling “Time 4 Change”, featuring a pulsating and dark bassline reminiscent of disc one’s “Al Kinda”. “Make a Stand”, a collaboration with Marcus Intalex, introduces a more cinematic element into the mix, with sweeping strings placed against hardcore breaks for an endearingly emotional charge. “Stuck on You” continues the emotional mood, with a lilting minor-key synth element and soul vocal sample set on top of a crunching jungle break.
“Acid Rain” is a carryover from the first disc, complete with useless vocals. The song is interesting, however, for its application of traditional techno sounds to a jungle template. “Finger in the Hole” takes a turn towards the ominous, with an imposing, hostile bassline and implacable beats floating in an ether of distorted voices and anomalous computer noises. “Crosby” is a turn back towards more stridently emotional territory. Ghostly voices are heard, faintly, in the background of a rolling breakbeat, sad and plaintive moaning against the mechanistic foreground.
The mood continues with “Second Skin” and “Silently”, the latter of which is a romantic ballad slightly reminiscent of a drum & bass Bjork (although Kiyomi’s vocals are nowhere near as muscular as those of Bjork). The last two tracks on the disc are among the best of the album—continuing the air of romantic attachment while ramping up the implicit emotional tension. “Saviour” sounds almost as if it were built around a particularly sad Supertramp sample. It segues nicely into “Hidden Hand, the album’s musical and emotional climax. A great deal of the genre’s power comes from the dichotomy between the relentless power of the jungle breakbeat and the sparse melodic elements placed alongside it. “Hidden Hand”, perhaps the most aggressive track on the album, acts as a dark counterpoint to the melancholy and romantic narrative throughout the bulk of the first two discs.
No One’s Listening Anymore suffers for its length. Double albums are notoriously tricky to pull off, and no less in world of drum & bass. The most damning thing I can say about the first disc is that if Withers intends to produce more work outside of the drum & bass template he needs to learn to focus his intensity as effectively when he can’t rely on a rolling jungle bassline underneath. Tracks like “Al Kinda” point to an effective stylistic marriage. The second disc may also drag a bit over the course of eleven tracks, but there is no doubt that it seems a far more cohesive and comfortable statement. Perhaps the future will see Withers finally blending these disparate elements into a cohesive whole. It’s been a while since drum & bass had anything resembling a rapprochement with the “mainstream” of electronic music—maybe this is a future that Klute could work towards.
// Notes from the Road
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