Dubstep is now more of an institution than a modality. One need only compare Vex’d’s Cloud Seed with any of the current outputs sprouting from Hotflush, Punch Drunk, 3024, Hyperdub, or even Vex’d’s own host label, Planet Mu, to witness the ways in which the temperature within the scene has gravitated from chilly to hot, and in which the landscape has deviated from sepulchral post-industrial ruins to a kind of reconstructive modernism.
Jamie and Roly Vex’d were progenitors of the genre, though the bridge between their sound and the raw distortion-laced trip-hop of Mille Plateaux’s Electric Ladyland collections seems to be obscured only insofar as the fact that the group was only ever retrospectively considered when they were considered at all. Now that many rightfully consider their debut full length Degenerate to be an essential document of the era, it would make sense that Cloud Seed be released as a hodgepodge retrospective collection, a combination of a failed attempt at a sophomore effort circa 2007 and a crumb trail of lingering b-sides.
Degenerate was an encroachment, a space growing smaller through the clever use of claustrophobic syncopation and melancholy strings. Cloud Seed feels like the aftermath of that, a found space of manufactured landscapes, loosened by the persistence of backbeat, but no less bleak or brutalist. With the beats more flatfooted than the tiptoed jump-up of the ashen grey 2-steppers of early dubstep, Cloud Seed does begin to resemble that bridge between the Electric Ladyland comps and The Bug (actually, this is also not far from The Bug’s little-heard first album, Tapping the Conversation).
Overall, Cloud Seed does not fall short on atmosphere, but its components feel rather loosely bound and unfinished. According to the sleeve notes, Jamie and Roly split to Berlin and Bristol respectively sometime in the late naughts and never got around to making their follow-up. After Planet Mu founder Mike Paradinas begged the two to release something, they rounded up Cloud Seed as it was, without trying to polish these tunes up or settle any remaining tensions left in them.
The hypothetical doors opening at the album’s commencement start the album off well. The first track, “Take Time Out”, a collaboration with frequently employed dubstep mistress Warrior Queen, lays itself out flat, refusing to freak out in a climactic tantrum or flatter its mix with familiar tricks. The smashing percussion forms a rhythmic tick-tock that reads like a prison chant or a work song when combined with Warrior Queen’s dubbed-out hollers. Melody is but a distant dream in this tune’s reality. Long bass drones and abstract atonal carvings dominate and bleed over into the noisy bursts of the ambient, cinematic “Remains of the Day”.
Despite a strong opening, most of Cloud Seed is merely competent. The album’s core strength is in its soundscaping, particularly the interplay of physical matter and gaseous echo space, robot-operated steel mills and the musky pollutant smog of their smelting stoves. Though the dichotomies work fine in tandem, they also perform well during the moments of Cloud Seed when one is allowed to overpower the other, like the headbanger mechanics of “Killing Floor (Mah Mix)” or the microtonalities of the remix of electroacoustic composer John Richards’ “Suite for Piano and Electronics”.
Cloud Seed, while containing great moments, is not congruent enough with the dynamic of Degenerate to be a proper follow-up and not distinctly weird enough to stand out on its own despite this. Sadly, Cloud Seed’s compositional shortfalls has the potential to undermine any sense of the group’s talent, which would be a shame. Perhaps, the Vex’d boys walked away from this one for a reason. Or maybe the promise of its better parts could have been fulfilled if they had just tried to finish it.