Plutonic Lab is Leigh Ryan, an Australian hip-hop producer who came to the national attention as producer and one half of Melbourne hip-hop duo Muph n Plutonic. He produced the group’s 2004 album, Hunger Pains, and A-hop veteran Pegz’s well-received second album of last year. Codes Over Colours, which was released back home at the end of last year, is the producer’s third solo album, and reflects a busy, confident producer at the top of his game.
Instrumental hip-hop hasn’t hit the radar screens of buzz-makers as heavily in 2006 as it has in the past, as when RJD2 exploded onto the scene in 2002, for example. But the genre keeps chugging along, partly because this mood music provides an easy accompaniment to other activities—without requiring an excess of attention, it still feels cool to listen to.
Plutonic Lab’s hip-hop pedigree flows through most of the album more in spirit than in practice. The idea of the “hip-hop beat” that DJ Shadow showcases is picked up wholeheartedly on Codes Over Colours, though here the percussion is more organic (with a greater involvement of high snares and brushed cymbals). Rapping itself plays only a small role. On “The Waiting”, for example, Muphin, Plutonic’s other half in Muph n Plutonic, is joined by Ivenz and Pegz (of the aforementioned Plutonic-produced 2005 album, Axis), but even here the short, slow verses are of almost minimal importance compared to the warm string accompaniment.
That said, apart from “The Waiting”, the album doesn’t sound particularly Australian. Most of the samples are American, and the production quality and consistency could have come from a Philly studio just as easily as out of Melbourne. “Codes Over Colours” even swirls around a Middle-Eastern-style keyboard melody, with tinkling effects behind and a cool beat. A wordless female vocal adds to the world music vibe.
There’s more to Plutonic, though, than hip-hop beats and the occasional lush melody. “Livications” scratches through a wind-up music box melody, while underneath strings play long-arc counter-melodies. It’s a complex, understated composition, spare and effective and showing Plutonic is not just a producer, but also a composer of great skill. “Reminisce” opens with a sample that introduces the track’s theme “let’s take a second to think back”, dropping a cool jazz sample (the track’s more jazz than hip-hop, really). The scratched combination of samples is light-hearted, like a simpler Avalanches track (the most similar thing on Since I Left You is “Tonight May Have to Last Me All My Life”).
The debt to other recent instrumental hip-hop masterpieces may be the one thing that stops Codes Over Colours from becoming a new classic of the genre. Of course, it’s the Avalanches, but also RJD2 and DJ Shadow provide very familiar touchstones for Plutonic’s sound. On “Echoes (Midnight on Pluto)”, the production’s throbbing atmospherics recall a little too closely RJD2’s work on Deadringer (if you need a specific track, it’s “June”). At least Lotek’s UK-accented rap is smooth and confident, and the track (despite its minimal innovation), comes over veiled and graceful. The hook from “Character Assassin”, which features Kye from Wicked Beat Soundsystem (another Aussie band), comes from a segment at the end of “Frontier Psychiatrist”.
I suppose for those of you who thought RJD2’s excursion into synths, metal and indie-based composition for Since We Last Spoke was a misstep, Codes Over Colours could be an adequate alternative. Better than adequate—it hums with the same calm sophistication. Plutonic’s approach to production is minimal but evocative, and he creates soundscapes with confidence and skill: each track has a sure sense of individual identity, but is not allowed to drag past its natural resting point (this is by no means a given). Which all combines to say: if you’re into instrumental hip-hop, Codes Over Colours is as good an entry into the genre as you’re likely to find yet this year.