[26 September 2007]
It’s always something of a surprise to me to see that drum & bass is still going strong. No disrespect is intended by this observation, but the genre has fallen a long way from its commercial and critical heyday of the late 1990s.
At least in the United States, jungle was seen as being the “next big thing”, a particularly potent offshoot of electronic music that wowed the critics and seemed on the brink of invading the US market—particularly the urban market, long impervious to foreign phenomenon. Ultimately, such hopes proved illusory. Although drum & bass still has, to be sure, a sizeable following in the UK and a loyal following in the US, it’s a much smaller following than it used to be. Roni Size won the Mercury Prize in 1997 for New Forms, but the anticipated millennial surge of interest in future music never really occurred. Roni Size went from being a symbol of a new zeitgeist to, well, what exactly is he even doing anymore?
Ironically, the US urban music market was eventually infiltrated by foreign sounds, but not from Britain. It was reggaeton, and a host of assorted styles welling up from the Caribbean, that captured the hearts and wallets of urban music buyers. There are a number of reasons for this, mostly having to do with shifting demographics and the assimilation of Hispanic culture into the American mainstream, but the lesson was not hard to miss. New styles rise to prominence organically, and in retrospect there really was never much of a chance that the stridently cosmopolitan and faintly elitist likes of drum & bass ever stood much of a chance in America (still fiercely parochial).
There is, however, still good music being made in the genre, even if a great deal of it passes under the radar of all but the most fervent followers. I keep my ear pressed pretty closely to the ground, and I have to admit there’s not a lot of buzz in the field these days—but a new release from Klute (AKA Tom Withers) is always cause for celebration. Coming on the heels of 2005’s No One’s Listening Anymore, The Emperor’s New Clothes is another surpassingly strong effort from one of the most consistently satisfying producers in the game. If it doesn’t receive as enthusiastic a reception as it probably deserves—on account of drum & bass’ current recherche status—all the more reason to bewail the spasmodic nature of electronic music’s shifting fashion sense.
The US release of The Emperor’s New Clothes is substantially different from the UK release. Both albums are double-discs, but whereas the UK version was 24 tracks long, with the first disc dedicated to traditional drum & bass and the second disc devoted to experiments in house, techno, and downtempo (a laNo One’s Listening Anymore), the US version offers a radically different set. All of the drum and bass material from the UK version’s first disc is present, but many of the tracks off the second disc have been gutted in favor of reprinting a handful of 12” UK-only drum & bass singles. It’s hard to criticize the end result, merely to say that it’s different—Klute’s American fans will probably appreciate a more concentrated dose of the drum & bass for which he is rightfully famous.
And in that vein there is definitely a lot of good stuff on display. The first disc starts with “We Control the Vertical”, as strong and sinister an opener as could be imagined—all looming basslines and atmospheric distress. “Troiler” ups the ante with an infusion of hardcore punk attitude, in the form of chugging guitars and industrial downbeats. In my review of No One’s Listening Anymore, I criticized Klute on the basis that his non-drum & bass tracks didn’t seem to be as finely-wrought as they could be. It seems that he’s taken the advice to heart: “Pissed Jeans” (nice title) is one of the best tracks I’ve heard all year, all loping trip-hop beats and dark melodies. The second disc is slightly less aggressive than the first—a bit more upbeat, slightly jazzier. The highlight is easily “Hell Hath No Fury”, an almost ten-minute-long example of spacey astronaut jazz that builds and builds over the course of its running time, reaching towards a climax both tragic and inevitable.
Klute has always been a prolific producer, and there are some who might balk at the size and scope of this set, clocking in as it does at well over two hours. So be it. Whereas No One’s Listening Anymore seemed a bit padded, too long for its own good, there really isn’t anything I’d change about The Emperor’s New Clothes. I would like to someday hear the UK version for comparison’s sake, but as it is, the version we US fans have in our hands is about as good as one could possibly hope for.