Change is hardwired into the DNA of electronic music. The history of the form is a history of transformation, with genres begetting genres, and those sub-genres begetting further sub-genres. It’s a painful process, with new artists being minted every week and old ones being put to the curb with the recycling (please sort your green and clear glass bottles from your trip hop and drill & bass).
But sometimes evolution is regressive. Nowhere can this concept be better illustrated than in the world of breaks—“breaks” being short for breakbeat. Breakbeat split from the ancient line of house with the mutation of the bass drum pattern. Whereas house traditionally places a kick drum at every beat within a measure—or sometimes every other beat in a measure—breakbeat, like drum ‘n’ bass, differentiated itself from house by placing the bass drum at uneven intervals, such on the first and fourth, or first, second, and fourth beats in the traditional 4/4 form. (Drum ‘n’ bass moved away from both breaks and house by way of the early ‘90s mutation of “hardcore”, which took the traditional house tempo of 110-135 BPM and sped it up to 155-170 BPM.)
Early breakbeat gave way to big-beat, which remains one of the most asinine genre labels in existence. Big-beat was, at least initially, a hybrid of breakbeat house with the dense sonic layering of groups like Public Enemy and Meat Beat Manifesto. It’s impossible to mention big-beat without also mentioning the Chemical Brothers, who at least partially invented the genre and are responsible for some of the best electronic music of the last decade. Other artists followed in their footsteps, such as house DJ Norman Cook, the erstwhile bassist for Britpop never-rans the Housemartins who later became famous across the world as Fatboy Slim. Similarly, there were also many previously established and successful groups such as Underworld, Orbital, and the Prodigy, who while they may not have been classified as big-beat, took inspiration from the burgeoning genre as the music continued to evolve into the commercial peak of the late ‘90s.
At its best, big-beat represented the kind of sonic adventurism that electronic music was created to celebrate. The intricate interplay of densely layered samples and unnaturally filtered instrumentation opened entirely new music venues, reintroducing the modernist ethos originally championed by artists such as Brian Eno while simultaneously acknowledging the world of rock music with pop song structures and incorporated vocalists. For a brief, shining moment, it looked as if the music was going to grow beyond the slight boundaries of the dance community and grow to eventually embrace the outer limits of human experience.
But, alas, we all know that big-beat didn’t change the world. After a few critical and commercial successes, the genre became a cliché . The expansionist milieu of the Chemical Brothers became the proletarian rigidity of the Lo Fidelity All-Stars. The rampant overuse of cheesy funk samples and obscure vocal bits from ‘60s TV shows got old real fast—taking the initial optimism of unlimited musical postmodernism and turning it into a fast-food commercial. Big-beat got shuffled to the back of the queue as trance rose up from Ibiza to bum-rush the decks, followed in short order by two-step/UK garage, electroclash, and any number of other horribly titled sub-sub-genres.
But what happened to breaks? After the big-beat backlash ran its course, the breaks community morphed into an analog of the drum ‘n’ bass community: it grew smaller, more insular and far more obsessed with the purity of the genre. Gone was the sample-heavy and inventive approach of big-beat, here to stay was the minimal, far harder approach of the so-called “nu-school” breaks, along with the archly minimal “progressive” strain. As with drum ‘n’ bass, the concept of fun was banished, in favor of increasingly “hardcore” iterations of the basic breaks template, stripped down and set against the backdrop of a regressively unenthusiastic musical scene.
There have been some interesting breaks artists to come along in the years following the big-beat implosion, and one of the more interesting to rise to prominence has been Überzone. After dropping a series of electro-influenced singles throughout the late ‘90s, the man known as Q finally released his debut “artist” album, Faith in the Future, in 2001. Here was something interesting: Überzone took the basic nu-school template of sharp and crisp techno-influenced beats and married it to the long-extant Florida school of bottom-heavy, slightly psychedelic breaks. The result was a solid, memorable debut from a promising artist . . . by no means a classic but a definite keeper.
Überzone’s installment in the long-running Y4K finds the breaks genre on the cusp of a new critical mass. The more progressive breaks, such as those you might find on the TCR label, are represented side-by-side with the more funky and playful breaks of the Finger Lickin’ family. Longtime stalwarts such as Elite Force, Renie Pilgrem, General MIDI, and BLIM are represented, alongside newer artists and three cuts by Überzone himself. For a while there it seemed as if breaks was in danger of following drum ‘n’ bass into history as another dwindling, self-important, and increasingly ascetic genre in a long line of currently defunct electronic music genres. But with artists like these doing work like this, the genre seems to be on the receiving end of a long-overdue kick in the pants.
The worst thing that can ever happen to any genre of music is to see it splintered into multiple exclusive divisions. Its gratifying to listen to this disc and hear the asinine borders between the nu-school, progressive, and Florida sub-genres melting away. Musical cultures are stronger when cross-pollination occurs, and that rarely happens anymore in the cliquish realms of drum ‘n’ bass. There’s even some tech-house flavor here.
The highlights include “Fuego”, Überzone’s second collaboration with Rennie Pilgrem (following “Black Widow”, which you can find on Faith in the Future). It’s a savage, funky stomper. Another of Überzone’s new tracks, “Drunken Monkey”, almost reminds me of early Ming & FS in terms of the sheer volume of musical ideas entertained in the context of a single track. Etostone’s “Get Free”, rather than a cover of the Vines’ song of the same name, is an ominous tech-house number that wouldn’t have been out of place on the first Sonic Mook Experiment compilation. Robert Owens, AKA the World’s Greatest Living House Vocalist, even shows up with BLIM on “Take Me Back”.
If you’re at all interested in the breakbeat genre circa 2004, Überzone presents Y4K is absolutely essential listening. Listening to this disc makes me extremely anxious to hear Überzone’s next album—if he approaches his new material with the broad minded enthusiasm that he applied to compiling this disc, we are in for a rare treat.
// Notes from the Road
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