High Contrast: High Society

High Contrast
High Society
Breakbeat Science

I always get into trouble with drum & bass. It’s not that I don’t like the genre — quite to the contrary, I like it a lot. I am not, however, exhaustively familiar with it to the exclusion of everything else. I am, and have always been, a generalist, and while I consider myself familiar with many genres, I would never be so bold as to proclaim myself the master of any but a very few. So, with that said, caveat emptor. (I get more angry letters from drum & bass fans than anyone else, and I am trying my level best to inoculate myself in advance.)

With that in mind, I don’t want to mince words: High Society is a very good record. With this album, High Contrast (AKA Lincoln Barrett) has achieved something that has eluded some of the best drum & bass producers throughout history. By crafting a worthy follow-up to a groundbreaking debut album, Barrett has effectively outpaced seminal artists like Roni Size / Reprazent and Goldie, both of whom followed up their classic debut artist albums (New Forms and Timeless, respectively )with inauspicious sophomore releases (the tepid In The Mode and the catastrophic Saturnzreturn, an overly-ambitious concept album that many mainstream critics believe single-handedly killed the genre). Drum & bass is a notoriously tricky genre, but Barrett has a few tricks of his own.

2002’s True Colors was a shot in the arm for a once-mighty genre that had fallen on unfortunate hard times. The fact is that during the late ’90s and early ’00s, drum & bass was in retreat. Despite a loyal coterie of fans and followers, the music was seen by the electronic music mainstream as increasingly cloistered, aggressively limiting and willfully headed toward extinction. I don’t need to say that there are obviously a few good producers on the scene who are doing their best to change this perception: High Contrast is one, and his Breakbeat Science labelmate London Elektricity is another. Are the Herculean efforts of these two producers and their peers enough to arrest the decay and bring the genre back to the forefront of electronic music’s state of the art, where it used to rest comfortably? I can’t say.

I do know that many American fans haven’t taken High Contrast’s example of generic diversity and sonic innovation to heart. The average American junglist — at least the ones that I come across these days — is far more interested in the darker and increasingly aggressive strains of the music, openly disdaining jazz-influenced artists such as the excellent LTJ Bukem in exchange for the harder sounds of the UK underground. Of course, I could just have the miserable luck of having never encountered a drum & bass fan with anything resembling taste, I don’t know.

Whether or not the American contingent of the jungle massive can pull their heads up long enough to realize it, High Society is a very good album. I will refrain from calling it a classic, however, for the single reason that it suffers from the same intrinsic limitations that have hampered every drum & bass record since time immemorial: there is only so much you can do at the breakneck speed of 170-plus BPM. I realize this may seem like heresy in some quarters, but the fact is that the very same frenetically fast breakbeat that defines the genre is a very real limitation. You can do a lot within these boundaries, but most great drum & bass producers eventually feel the constraints. Goldie tried to weld the genre to pretentiously ambitious orchestral movements, Roni Size unsuccessfully tried to crossbreed jungle with American hip-hop (a feat which was finally accomplished by the UK garage/two-step and grime scenes), and Photek eventually left the genre altogether for deep house. Meanwhile, the fact that the most commercially successful drum & bass has been produced by groups like Lamb and Kosheen has driven jungle further underground in an attempt to keep the “pop” influence out of their music. It’s an interesting dilemma.

High Contrast is taking the drum & bass model about as far as I believe it can currently go. Here he eschews the jazzy sounds of New Forms and LTJ Bukem’s Good Looking label in favor of the kind of sonically diverse, adventurously robust model favored by artists such as Groove Armada and Fatboy Slim. Accordingly, just as True Colors was a thoroughly diverse collection, High Society is laced throughout with traces of reggae, hip-hop, house, techno and even freestyle. I must admit that I am always surprised on the rare occasions that I hear a house-diva vocal performance on a drum & bass record, but there’s one on “The Basement Track”, a hit from last year that features a vocal which originally appeared on Indo’s turn-of-the-century anthem “RU Sleeping”. The freestyle vocal tradition that has always been so strong in house and American garage never really fit with the slightly more sinister sounds of drum & bass, but amazingly, this UK garage-influenced track (which was included on the disc only as a bonus) works rather well.

“Lovesick” opens the album with a suitably exhortative gospel vocal sample and a recurring orchestral vamp that places an emphasis on the track’s grandly melancholic undertones. “Tutti Frutti” continues the vocal emphasis with house-flavored barn-burner. The album’s title track features an inspired performance by Dynamite MC, replete with more string vamps and a suitably minor-key, almost understated atmosphere.

“Natural High” is an early favorite, featuring the angry vocals of female MC Nolay. It’s built atop a Timbaland-influenced techno-pop riff that makes the inevitable crashing breakbeats all the more devastating in contrast. “Angels and Fly” is almost structured like an Underworld track, with consistently evolving synthesizer arpeggios contrasted against recurring vocal elements. “Only Two Can Play” actually features a reggae-tinged R&B vocal that would not be out of place on a pop chart (if the backing instrumental track were sped down by about half, that is). It’s even got some hot funk guitar offset against syncopated handclaps and saxophone vamps — hardly a normal occurrence in the drum & bass world.

The album finishes off with “Yesterday’s Colors”, an ambitious track that reminds me of mid-era Goldie in the way it introduces ominous and menacing sonic elements to create an impressively magisterial mood, almost similar to recent Unkle or Sasha (yes, that Sasha).

High Society is as good as drum & bass gets in the year 2004, and that is very good indeed. In terms of the genre’s inherent limitations, I hope I’m wrong, because I want very much for High Contrast to continue making music this good for many years to come. Regardless of the future of drum & bass, however, I believe that High Contrast will survive and thrive in the coming years. Despite the occasional textural redundancies (which are a specific recurring problem in drum & bass), he is still one of the most ingeniously imaginative producers working in the field today. Perhaps he could eventually lead drum & bass out of the proverbial ghetto and back into the electronic music mainstream once again — as the saying goes, there’s no need to hide his light under a bushel.