Arctic: Three Stripes EP

[29 August 2013]

By Al Kennedy

Fresh from coming correct with his amazing 12” Shook/Know This Don for Tomas Fraser’s visionary, London based grime label Coyote Records, James ‘Arctic’ Black steps up to the plate for Liminal Sounds’ second release, the exploratory Three Stripes EP.

Having birthed themselves as a label with five stellar remixes of Youngstar’s seminal grime anthem Pulse X, Liminal Sounds’ first original artist EP comes at a time when instrumental grime, as a genre, has over the last 8 months or so, gone global - perfectly exemplified by Mr. Black himself, a UK born, Australian based producer.

Advancing on and mutating his Bloom influenced sound, the Three Stripes EP touches base with everything that is good about the grime sound at the moment. It has it all; rubbery basslines, funky indebted drums, stop start riddims, deranged, choppy vocal samples all underpinned by experimental, rolling percussion lines and haunting, ambient pad work.

Opening up with “Off Peak”—a definitely tongue in cheek title—Black dissects all that makes UK Funky work so well, mangling it up with traditional, as well as forward thinking grime sounds creating a number imbued with a restless energy and a clearly focused vision of what works and what doesn’t on the dancefloor.

The VIP version of the tune (track four on the digital EP), is subtly different from its predecessor and could easily be an earlier version of the opening number that was still knocking about as a project file in the producers DAW of choice —The same funky template employed initially is utilized throughout, which for me, is a bit disappointing as I would have loved to have heard the sounds exercised throughout (which are truly excellent) re-contextualized into a straight up grime number (well, as straight up as Arctic is able too) which would have, in my opinion, made for a better companion piece than this decent, yet inbred, redneck of a number.

“Three Stripes”—the titular track of the EP—utilizes the classic 8-bar format so beloved of early era grime producers, perverting the once simple template with liberal dashings of seemingly randomly placed snare/clap hits, odd, alien sounding midi strings, deep sub bass riffs and innovative, ear-grabbing effects that allow the track to drive itself along in a wonderfully unpredictable manner. The vocal sample, first laid out in the introduction, which re-appears at pertinent points throughout the tune, adds a sense of authenticity to the track, reaffirming the Australian based producer’s connection to his UK homeland.

Breen, one of the most lauded producers to have emerged from the new flurry of grimey instrumentation that has come out of the UK in the last year, closes the EP of with his reinterpretation of “Three Stripes”—a hard-edged imagining of Black’s original vision. Here Breen toughens up the drums, syncopates the basslines up a tad more, strips back the track to its bare bones and uses the original’s pads to create an ambient breakdown which powers the track along after the drop. Resultantly, Breen’s refix feels slightly more primed for the dancefloor than the original—its way more traditional than Arctic’s version but way less inventive at the same time.

The last of the original numbers on the EP, and the one that finishes up the vinyl only part of the release, is “Seeps”—a darker take the grime genre—a tune that unites a truly innovative stop start groove made up of punchy kicks, sub-wobbles, acidic synth twangs and Aphex Twin style snare rushes before dropping into a bouncy, sub heavy, rubbery 4x4 number. It’s a powerful track that could be dropped in a set by many different styles of DJ, which is testament to the inimitable style that Black is creating for himself.

All things said Three Stripes is an extremely strong release that almost signals a change in direction for Arctic, so different is this release from his last for Coyote. Sure, a similar sound palette is used, but the riddims/grooves employed throughout are fresh and different, and his general skills in mixing and production seems to have been bolstered somewhat in the last few months as the tracks come across a lot more polished than his earlier work. It’s a big release from a label who knows how to do things properly despite their young age—Cop on sight!

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