[2 April 2013]
The regional lines have been blurring lately with dubstep music. It used to be that you could listen to a track and identify its geographic origins with the precision of a GPS system. Certain scenes gave rise to certain sounds, but those sounds have finally begun to transcend geographic boundaries over the last couple of years. But there is one particular sound that seems to be entirely unique to UK tastes, and it’s hard to imagine it breaking in North America, despite its being embraced by the mighty Interscope records. It’s the brand of dubstep that’s a little too heavy on the cheese for the American heads, whose tastes have been shaped by the hard filth doled out by Excision, Skrillex, Datsik, Bare, and the other dubstep weapons of mass destruction.
Coming out of the UK is a schizophrenic drumstep pacing with soulful anthemic vocal hooks repeated ad nauseum right up to and through a cliff-like bass drop into the squelchy abyss. It’s the sound that dominates Modestep’s ironically named Evolution Theory. I say ironic because it’s a sound that hasn’t changed much since it gained popularity with Flux Pavilion’s “Cracks”—and Nero’s “Promises” just a few short years ago. This is dubstep’s most formulaic offering, and it’s hard not to be cynical on first listen. Those of us who review music have a tendency to go straight for the jugular when something sounds too familiar. But now that I’ve put it in context and gotten the too cool bravado off my chest: I actually enjoy some moments of the record. The lead track is the highlight of the record, despite its being almost entirely chorus.
As any good lead track should, “Show me a Sign” shows you a sign of exactly what the record will offer and it proves to have compass-like accuracy. The quiet organ riff slowly builds as the drippy pop vocals of Josh Friend croon, in what sounds like a fake patois, “Someone raise a light up / Light up the sky above / If you’re with me now show me a sign.” I should note here that I am only speculating as to the insincerity of the patois—Josh is white, British, and his last name is “Friend”. Though it’s entirely possible that the Friend family recently immigrated from Jamaica, I am going to say the odds are in my favor that he’s merely pulling a Snow on this line. It’s delivered over a textbook dubstep stutter and seems handcrafted to make the club kids go absolutely mental. Played in your home on a high volume I suspect it may have the same effect on your neighbors. There’s no doubt it was written with the live performance in mind. Don’t believe me? Listen for the genuine Klaxon sample.
The record is full of would-be and probably will-be radio singles like “Sunrise” and “Praying for Silence”. As a crossover it mixes the popular appeal of a boy band aesthetic and trite songwriting with undeniably catchy melodies and the requisite wall-shaking bass. If that’s not enough for you, there’s some grimey hip hop on “Another Day” and “Evolution Theory”. I didn’t find the rhymes particularly compelling, but I have to say that one of the finer details on the record was the intermittent wobble which appeared far too briefly in the background on this title track.
There is one other detail which is very notable on the record: the introduction to the genre of the first unironic metal guitar solo. Does a heavy-hitting (albeit with gloved hands) dubstep track need a rock guitar solo to take it up a notch? Absolutely not. In this case it goes a little sideways. My apologies to guitarist Nick Tsang. It’s not that I want to cast doubt on his considerable talent. These don’t appear to be purely sampled guitar licks, after all, so let’s give credit where credit is due. But the addition of a filtered, somewhat muted Corgan-esque guitar solo in a pop melody saturated with bass drive was enough to activate a latent cheese intolerance. It appears most notably on “Freedom”, “To the Stars”, and “Time”, the latter of which, taken out of the album’s context, could be the demo track for the high school rock band that Modestep would have been in the absence of the best in electronic music production software.
Bass music is expected to go low, but the truly low point on this record is “Feel Good”. It conjures images of music heard in rural plazas or elevators where musicians anonymously contribute their lesser works to easily digestible compilations of shopping mall-targeted mediocrity. Is that a little dubstep breakdown I hear in the appliance department?
Thankfully, the rest of the album carries the weight of this previous transgression. And let’s be honest, if you picked up this record, you picked it up because you heard “Show me a Sign” remixed on a BBC Radio 1, because you’re a 15-year-old boy who happened to catch the leather-clad beauties on the ‘80s-era video, or because you simply don’t know any better. But now that you’ve read this, that’s no longer a valid reason.