[27 April 2011]
Yes, Magnetic Man is the dubstep sell-out album. And in print, it’s a nightmare. Magnetic Man are not just a trio, but a supergroup consisting of members with name recognition (Skream and Benga, who are joined by the relatively unknown Artwork) wielding a superhero moniker to produce radio-friendly pop-techno that only faintly resembles the whole breadth of what constitutes dubstep these days, but which will no doubt be confused with it hereafter. Signed to a major label at a time when that should mean exactly nothing, Magnetic Man make music that sounds like a halfway point rendezvous between Croydon and Ibiza. Like grime compatriots Tinchy Stryder and Dizzee Rascal, the Magnetic Man crew has already proven successful in their native UK thanks in large part to a series of sonic compromises, and, who knows, they may even be able to challenge lapsed hip-hop’s nu-club orthodoxy on the charts in America now that the album has finally hit those shores (the six month delay is yet another reason why a major label signing should mean exactly zilch in the current era).
All these factors seem to weigh negatively against Magnetic Man before an initial spin. But let’s be honest; Skream and Benga never exactly made tunes at the more progressive end of the scene anyway. Even when dubstep had extremely limited commercial viability, the two longtime Croydon mates made bangers. Though occasionally dabbling in artier terrain, Skream and Benga have always been crowd pleasers. Their two most seminal cuts—and it’d be hard to understate how pivotal Skream’s “Midnight Request Line” and Benga and Coki’s “Night” were to everything that followed—seemed to abide exactly at the radius between austere, elemental, Round Black Ghosts style dubstep and stoopid, squiggly, acid-bass-for-devil-horns brostep. With that said, Magnetic Man is a valiant hybridization effort featuring two who have earned their keep and deserve their shot at the spotlight.
If Magnetic Man is the beginning of the death of dubstep, and there’s little reason it shouldn’t be, this is perhaps a fitting document of the genre’s mainstream breech. Of particular note is “Anthemic”, which comes right out and announces itself as stadium-ready not only by name, but in its heavily chorused rave-up synths, overdriven and slightly detuned bassline, and crunchy backbeat. The song’s titanium brass chorus, a John Williams motif in the making, is practically primed for a comic book superhero movie and Hollywood is stupid if they don’t grab at least one of Magnetic Man’s bigger tunes for a summer blockbuster.
When listening to Magnetic Man, it’s hard not to think of the pulverizing energy and commercial magnetism of Big Beat, which polarized the dance community by towing out the breakbeats of hardcore rave, amping them up to 11, and defying unspoken scene conduct codes by miming the genetics of rock bands. Magnetic Man is likewise full of “songs”, many with singers, a choice which could be read as heretical. Here, the fat tremolo bass replaces the break as the music’s defining consistency, a central tenet that will keep the “heads that remember” on board as it converts a new horde of followers who will likely look for their fix no further than Borgore, Skillrex, and the inevitable indie/metal/hip-hop miscegenations of tomorrow.
Magnetic Man, conscious as it may be, can no more take credit for any social spiral than Dig Your Own Hole could. Both are good albums in their own right. And unlike Katy B’s slightly superior On a Mission, there is actual dubstep here. “Mad” has a massive bass attack that flattens anything above sea level, while the rubbery gait of “K Dance” invites a comparison to Skream’s “Trapped in a Dark Bubble”. However, there’s something in the narrative structure of the album that makes these tracks feel like the suture between the singles, rather than the standouts. Only late album cuts such as the aptly named “Crossover” (featuring Miss Katy B herself) and the John Legend-helmed “Going Nowhere” marry Magnetic Man’s pop potential with dubstep’s defining rhythm engine. “I Need Air”, “Fire”, and “Perfect Stranger” are instead just house-inflected pop with skronky bass, while “Boiling Water” could even pass for commercial drum n’ bass.
There’s no denying that the production on the album sounds like a million bucks. There are no eerie atmospheres or dub hollows to speak of. Naming their lead single “I Need Air” may seem to contend that there’s a suffocation inherent in the studio vacuum, but Magnetic Man seem comfortable working in this environment, as evidenced by the aforementioned track. Featuring Angela Hunte, who is perhaps most famous for penning “Empire State of Mind”, “I Need Air” is rave pop of the highest caliber, its celestial twinkle on loan from Orbital and its bounce rented from Martyn. Hunte’s voice does occasionally do that mousy faux tween innocence thing that’s Britney’s calling card, but all is forgiven as that mad rush builds up behind a long extended breath. The lyrics may be a bit of hogwash, but in the milieu of Black Eyed Peas style “love in the club” songs, it’s practically Yeats.
More careful words can be found in “The Bug”, which, though not a sonic tribute, alludes both in name and outlook to Kevin Martin’s paranoid dubstep dancehall project. “The Bug” stands alone on the album as a harbinger of post-millennial cybernetic paranoia, the kind that was normative in the techstep and jungle of yore. Here, the “bug” is a kind of corporate spyware as the mainframe of artificial intelligence that controls culture and colonizes mental space through the data collection of spybots and social media. The vocodered but monotone voice in “The Bug” perfectly captures the new cultural landscape where “Everyone stays inside” and “Nobody waits/Nobody contemplates”. When the chorus of “take evolution higher” comes in, one is left wondering if “evolution” here is necessarily a good thing.
However, when Magnetic Man refrains with “I am a bug in this global community”, one suspects maybe there’s ulterior motives for infecting themselves into the mainstream. “Crossover” has a similar kind of self-reflexive wordplay. On its own, it’s a fantastic cut with a buzzy arpeggio harmonizing perfectly with rough bass and the sirenic Katy B’s voice (this is the better of her two tracks here). The lyrics appear at first glance to be about a dependable lover offering a hand of solace, but there’s some about the weird way Katy B beckons the listener to “cross over and come inside” that suggests that she’s more like a drug or a crutch, “the only friend you need to know”, than a selfless partner, thereby suggesting that the crossover itself may be a retreat into the trenches.
As a pop album, there’s much to love on Magnetic Man and very little filler present, even if some tracks (“Going Nowhere”, “Karma Crazy”) strike harder than others (“Perfect Stranger”, “Ping Pong”). Magnetic Man should be applauded for not withdrawing too far from their past sound, even if their contemplation of a pop future looks like the present dressed in different garb. If one were looking for an adventurous future sound though, Skream and Benga were already making bangers over five years ago. If only being signed to a major label meant exactly nothing.