Genres are always as interesting for their unexplored directions and back alleys as for the moments and artists that make up the well-lit thoroughfares of popular and critical taste. Downtempo is no exception. The original “trip-hop” was a melange of instrumental hip-hop and acid jazz, and while most of it has dated appallingly, some of the early records remain edgily fresh. Critics and label marketers then merged the genre with the diverse Bristol scene, often obscuring thrilling local variation within an increasingly narrow stylistic template. Musicians hated the “trip-hop” label. More recently, the downtempo genre has failed to adequately describe the wide range of music produced within its influence, providing little means for listeners to negotiate the interconnections of post-rock, instrumental hip-hop, or ambient jazz.
Earthling were associated with the Bristol phase of the genre, through producer Tim Saul, who assisted in demo sessions for Portishead’s Dummy and learned his craft in the musical terrain that had produced Neneh Cherry, The Wild Bunch, and Smith & Mighty. A duo of Saul and London rapper Mau, Earthling released Radar and a set of singles and EPs in 1994 and 1995, and then essentially went unheard until 2004. Radar was a fresh, intriguing album, and it still stands as a respectable complement and contrast to Dummy, Maxinquaye, and Protection, not to mention the numerous genre also-rans of the period. Saul’s beats, while obviously of a common origin to those of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, were nonetheless crisply innovative; but what remains entirely fresh and unique are Mau’s lyrics: delivered with a distinctively English — East End — brashness, a voice delighted in its own zany inventiveness, his off-kilter perspective melding sentence fragments and shards of imagery with references to science fiction, underground poets and post-colonial writers.
A label dispute with EMI effectively derailed the release of their 1997 follow-up, Human Dust, which maintained Mau’s quirky, literate lyrics and Tim Saul’s muscular yet thoughtful downcraft production. The album didn’t see release until 2004, when French label Discograph finally made it available. Had it been released in 1997, it would have been a fabulous companion to the austerity of Portishead’s second album, and predated the buzzy, dense, guitar-based direction that Massive Attack’s Mezzanine brought to the genre the following year. Mau’s delivery was breathier than before, yet, like the production, offset by moments of keen grace. Overall, its tone was wiry, angular, angry, scuffed; in its stark contrast to the remnants of the genre in 2004 it was a guarded, obtrusive listen.
In the intervening years, Saul has produced work for film and television, worked with French Algerian rap collective Intik, and collaborated in 2004 with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow on the debut album by Stephanie McKay, one of the great under-appreciated soul albums of the last decade. Mau’s work with French downtempo collective Télépopmusik brought a dreamy insouciance to material that otherwise risked being undistinguished from transient genre material of the era; he also joined the Dirty Beatniks for 2000’s Feedback.
If those projects track against the overall diffusion of the downtempo genre, they are also tendencies on display throughout Insomniacs’ Ball, Earthling’s third album, produced over the space of several years and several countries, and released earlier this year on Bandcamp. There’s a melodic richness to tracks like “Gri Gri” in which a washy, synthy foundation recalls the sweeping breadth of the genre in its middle years. Mau’s lyrics — “One time two times ain’t enough / They keep on coming playing games with us” — have a nursery rhyme charm to them, tightly wound and barbed with an over-processed delivery. “Fly Away” is a song of delicate, shimmering charm, the only song not to feature Mau, on which Julee Cruise (of Twin Peaks “Falling” fame) provides a whisper-thin vocal amid the production’s glowing creaks and hums.
But the band’s distinctive and idiosyncratic edges remain. Indeed, the third track, “Poems, Prayers & Pills” seems to open with a sketch of careful austerity: a lean, mournful string figure and crisp, drop-like piano; it builds through the stately, provisional inertia of the track to, at its closing, an intoned set of cadences with a buzzy drawl at the back of Mau’s voice — “Just be here” — and a delicious, glistening decay. There’s a rich, understated complexity to this material, plainly a product of a long-standing musical collaboration.
There are also some stunning moments of beatcraft. The opening of “Bobby X” is as meticulous a piece of loop production as you might hear this side of hip-hop’s Golden Age as it opens with a shuddering, withdrawing, pugnacious sample: a back-drawn snare like a rasp of drawn breath, piano from the bottom and top of the register clasping the song in iron gloves. Shards of sound seem to slide past one another, assembling a beat out of near-collisions. Yet somehow Mau’s boastful lyrics — “gonna let the whole world know I’m here” — are tempered by his thrillingly idiosyncratic delivery. They are less a compilation of braggadocio and instead — “so don’t ask me about philosophies of Archimedes, my education was beat-street and graffiti” — an eminently quotable coalition of nimble charm and cheeky grace.
This was always the magic in Saul and Mau’s collaboration. Much like Barrow and Beth Gibbons in Portishead, or Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird, the finest moments in downtempo were not the smooth congregation of like minds, but a rich and intoxicating marriage of contrasts. Saul’s production is meticulous without seeming determinative, but much of the credit must go to Mau, who has the ability to make an understated phrase sound like an unhurried threat. In “A Great Year for Shadows”, as the chorus rounds on the pushy drama of the song’s beats, he intones, neutrally, “when I leave you here / I’m never gonna turn around”. The moment corners the song into a gorgeous asymmetrical orchestral swell which lurches through the song before it restores itself to its braces.
These contrasts somehow normalize the diversity of the album’s influences. Much of this music is unmistakably English, from the spooled soundtrack-like drama at the start of “Harp for Bats”, its Barry-era harpsichord chord comps and picked string accents. The opening track, “Lab Baby”, rambles into view with a campy horn-bolstered figure driven hard behind a reverb-soaked guitar, and despite the shadow of The Doors’ Ray Manzarek (who collaborated on Human Dust) the track traverses with barreling abandon through a kind of chirpy mid-60s camp rock, a flash of dub, something of Two-Tone, and the punchy attitude of the Happy Mondays. Mau’s lyrics don’t so much approach the conventional outlines of popular culture as bum rush them: “You call me up / ask for translations / what’s the meaning of good vibrations?” Somehow, even at its extreme, this is not quite as original, not quite as genre-busting, as it promises to be, but there’s such a confidently boisterous attitude, such a thrill to be pulling materials from the air in fistfuls, that it overcomes any reservations. It’s great fun.
The album is more rock-facing than their former work — even Human Dust — but the guitar-based arrangements of some of the album’s songs effectively draw it away from many of the genre conventions that are so exhaustively played out. But hip-hop constantly reiterates its presence, for instance with the brash break-beats that hammer against the side of “In the Sky” just as the song’s sullen directionless is softening the listener’s attention.
Like its predecessors, Insomniacs’ Ball does not caress listeners. While by no means is it inaccessible, Saul’s beats are so meticulously, edgily crafted, and Mau’s wordplay so idiosyncratic, and the two so thoroughly synthesized, that they present the listener with a kind of aural fait accompli that responds generously to repeated listening. Texturally rich, offering caustic surprises alongside gauzy beauty, and undeniably fun, Insomniacs’ Ball is a solid release from two thrilling and too long-neglected talents.