[17 May 2012]
Despite all the robots, Japan’s a place of tradition, not futurism. It’s a culture where obedience and deference to authority is a central tenet. Thus the country’s music, with some radical exceptions in noise and experimental music, tends to be not only backwards-gazing, but backwards-aping, adopting genres almost as if they were fashion statements and replicating sounds to near-karaoke mimicry as if they were golden gods. Established genres are authorities of their own in Japan.
Yet, Goth Trad’s Takeaki Maruyama thinks that the March 11th earthquake and subsequent disasters rattled the collective consciousness. Plenty of electronic producers like to grandstand by bragging about being on the cutting edge in their single or album titles—appropriately so on albums like Newbuild or New Forms—but Maruyama’s New Epoch is actually about a establishing a new Japan, overturning those centuries of appealing to and appeasing the status quo. He’s a bit vague on what his vision of this is, but it’s curious that he would utilize an established sound, in this case mid-aughts dubstep, to usher in the dawn. It seems a bit Japan-as-usual.
More curious still since Goth Trad has been making dubstep since well before that term even caught on outside of Bristol or Croydon. In 2005, Goth Trad put out two albums, the atonal but tempered improve noise LP The Inverted Perspective and Mad Raver’s Dance Floor, a wholly original ecstatic blend of breakbeats rave, hip-hop, and what was then largely known as “instrumental grime” or the b-sides of British grime singles that laid the groundwork for the dubstep scene. Rather than an imitation, Mad Raver wild and eclectic variations sounded like dubstep’s way forward, impressing the likes of major players like Digital Mystikz’s Mala who signed him to Deep Medi Musik, Kode9 who spun Goth Trad in his DJ sets, and Skream who asked him for a remix. Far from the dystopian industrial sonics that were both in Maruyama’s background and trending at the time, Mad Raver was full of energy, invention, and light
But just because Goth Trad now plays within comfortable parameters doesn’t mean that New Epoch is a bad album. However, it’s more disappointing than it might have been had it not come from an artist who has a high pedigree for experimentation and purports to be mapping out a new identity for his homeland. In fact, the hints of Eastern flavor throughout the album may be the most interesting bits, but Goth Trad is working with such subtle flourishes here that it’s hard to distinguish him from globetrotting Euro dubstep mystic peers like Peverelist, Ramadanman, and Cyrus, who’ve looked eastward for inspiration at various points in the genre’s recent past.
Album starter “Man in the Mask” has a slow-pacing, claustrophobic bassline whose elliptical patterns encroach the listener with a building web of minor chords. The half-beat comes in late as a four-to-the-floor, stretching things out and making the on the crackling snares all the more piercing. Yet, the keyboard pizzicato strings are bit cheesy in isolation and the album on the whole makes the mistake of diving from melodicism into drone and minimalism with the static cling fuzz murmurs of “Departure” and the deep rhythmic groove of “Cosmos” that follows.
It’s a shame, because the latter tune is like peak era Hawtin in its careful shifts, drifts, and hypnotic stills. Taken as a single, it’s a standout. On New Epoch, it sounds transitional, particularly adjacent the violent slab of metallic synth on album highlight “Air Breaker”, a track likely to slay even more in the club than it does at home.
The rest of the album competently paces in and out of Hotflush-style housey beats and insectoid creeps, but the major standouts are the tracks that, well, stand out, in both approach and composition. The vibrato on “Interlude” seems to have more emotion than all of the albums dull moment’s combined. Featuring big synth chords pulsed by ambient bass tones, it’s an aching reflective moment right down to the way its concluding bleeps teeter off like an EKG and its slow pace drives a proper wedge between all the manic energy of the dubstep-trad tracks.
“Babylon Fall” is easily the dubbiest thing on the album and even features some classic wobble bass on its verses. The song is a remix of a song Goth Trad did with his band Rebel Familia and the reggae singer Max Romeo, who’s in fine form here. That original was a bit more junglist in its intent, but Goth Trad’s “Babylon Fall” reminds me more of the better parts of Magnetic Man, pop-dubstep that doesn’t need to break ground to stand out. It follows its formula successfully, which is appropriately Japanese. But for Babylon to truly fall and for Japan to enter a New Epoch, it may take something slight more to rattle the old world out of its traditions.