Photek: Form & Function 2

[14 October 2007]

By Tim O'Neil

Photek, AKA Rupert Parkes, has been MIA from the music world since approximately 2000, the year he dropped Solaris on an unsuspecting listening audience. At the time, Solaris seemed like some kind of fluke: one of the leading drum & bass producers in the history of the genre recording a house album. And not just any kind of house, but some really deep, soulful house—the album had two Robert Owens collaborations, for goodness’ sake. This came on the heels of an especially productive few years where Photek had, along with the likes of Roni Size, Goldie and LTJ Bukem, defined and redefined the drum & bass movement, bringing it to the cusp of worldwide acclaim and positioning it at the forefront of the electronic music scene. You could have been forgiven for thinking, way back in the hazy days of 1998, that drum & bass was poised to conquer.

But it didn’t conquer, and the fin de siecle surge in drum & bass turned out to be, well, nothing so much as a fluke. After a brief flirtation with ubiquity, the music retreated to the depths of the underground which had spawned it. Artists like the aforementioned Roni Size and Goldie dropped off the international radar, forsaking the major label money (none of their albums sold particularly well in any event) in favor of an increasingly insular and insulated British scene. (Despite a few standout exceptions, drum & bass has never amounted to much of anything outside the UK.) Photek released the first Form & Function in 1998, a compilation of singles and remixes produced earlier in the decade. Along with his Risk & Reward EP and debut album Modus Operandi (both 1997), Form & Function cemented Photek’s status as one of the most creative musicians in the field, responsible for a markedly sinister, less club-oriented sound that relied as much on mood and atmosphere as rolling basslines (although those were still available in abundance).

Sensing perhaps that the ground had shifted beneath their feet, Photek’s decision to eschew drum & bass on Solaris provoked bemusement and intermittent outrage from the faithful—imagine a much smaller variation on the reaction to Dylan’s electric band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, only with a handful of pasty white nerds. In retrospect the decision seemed prophetic. It’s not so much that jungle was a sinking ship, but that in a realm of diminishing horizons it was wise for an artists of Photek’s pedigree to keep his options as wide as possible. Sure enough, his first collaboration with Robert Owens off the album, “Mine to Give”, reached number one on Billboard’s hot club tracks chart.

And then… nothing. Or rather, nothing much. After the relative success of Solaris he bought himself out of his Virgin contract and retreated back to the underground, where’s he’s been self-publishing his own 12"s under the Photek Productions boutique label. He’s shown up here and there on a few soundtracks—he popped up on The Animatrix, for instance. His most visible work these past seven years (!!!) was a collaboration with Trent Reznor on Nine Inch Nail’s 2005 album With Teeth, remixing “The Hand That Feeds” and (reportedly) contributing some programming to “All the Love in the World”.

So he hasn’t exactly been twiddling his thumbs, but those not intimate with the drum & bass underground may have been justified in thinking he had fallen off the face of the planet. Form & Function 2, therefore, arrives at just the right time, a reminder to everyone who may have forgotten, and for those who never knew in the first place, just how awesome Photek can be.

And this is certainly quite an awesome disc. Like the first Form & Function it’s a compilation of a number of tracks from a multitude of different sources. There are a few old-school dub-plates that have never before been released on CD, few remixes of older material, and a few new tracks mixed in as well. It’s a fitting format, considering the single-based nature of the drum & bass universe. Robert Owens show up again for “Things”—this time an unabashed drum & bass anthem, and every bit as irresistible as “Mine to Give”. By the way, it’s not the first time Ownes has sung over jungle, however, as he previously appeared on London Elektricity’s Billion Dollar Gravy album. “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu”, one of the standout tracks off of Risk & Reward, appears again in the form of a Teebee remix—still as fierce and savage as the original, all of ten years ago.

The album as a whole is filled with strong, compulsively danceable material. “Saturated Hip Hop”, rather than presenting anything so gauche as actual hip-hop, is more along the lines of the savage percussion seen on “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu”, with sparse bangra elements added to the minimal foundation. The album climaxes with the violent, and violently dense, “Full Spectrum Dominance”, a hard track that recalls nothing so much as Alec Empire’s classic solo drill & bass work. All told there’s 13 full tracks here, and every one of them is pretty good. Some have said that drum & bass is by its nature a repetitive genre. Well, there is some degree of truth in this. But that’s only a bad thing when the producers are dull and unimaginative, unable to see the infinite possibilities inherent is such an endlessly malleable and subtly subversive music. Photek is neither dull nor unimaginative, and while there is probably nothing here to reinvent the wheel, this is as about as good as drum & bass gets in the year 2007.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/photek-form-function-2/