Music

Nightmares on Wax: N.O.W. Is the Time

Career-spanning retrospective from Nightmares on Wax takes in black music from jazz and blues to funk and hip-hop, and then some more.

N.O.W. Is the Time
Nightmares on Wax

Warp

16 June 2014

In its 25-year history, Warp Records has seen many artists come and go. The iconic British indie label has been home to, at one time or another, LFO, Aphex Twin, and Grizzly Bear. But no act has been signed to Warp longer than George Evelyn. Doing business under the Nightmares on Wax name, Evelyn had Warp's second-ever release with "Dextrous" in 1989. He's been with the label ever since.

To celebrate, Evelyn has curated N.O.W. Is the Time, a sprawling, inclusive compilation of Nightmares on Wax's work over the last quarter century. The 28 tracks, plus a slate of new remixes if you opt for the "Deep Down Edition", are fairly evenly divvied up among the seven Nightmares on Wax studio albums, from 1991 debut A Word of Science to 2013's Feelin' Good. A couple non-album singles and a live cut round out the package, but there are no rarities, outtakes, demos, or gimmicks. That's just as well, because what you're left with is an appreciation of how impressively consistent, and consistently eclectic, Evelyn's output has been.

Nightmares on Wax's 1995 breakout sophomore album was called Smokers Delight, and you can be sure that title wasn't referring to Marlboros. Evelyn does not have a signature sound so much as a signature feel, and it's a relaxed, chilled-out, blunted, stoned one. Evelyn started Nightmares on Wax just as technology was allowing for DJs to become recording artists in their own rights, making records with their turntables, samplers, and mixing equipment instead of just spinning them. This "turntablism" informs the overall feel of N.O.W. Is the Time. Paradoxically, it's a feel that recalls the laconic, DJ-inspired sound of British labels like Ninja Tune and Mowax more than the cerebral bleeps 'n' bloops that Warp is known for.

In broad terms, Nightmares on Wax takes traditional black music forms and mixes and mashes them together with cinematic flourishes to create a distinctly modern but nonetheless organic template. The catch-all term for this result was "trip-hop". But that tag, meant to invoke groovy psychedelic music set to hip-hop beats, doesn't do justice to all that an album like N.O.W. Is the Time has to offer.

Yes, a track like "Man (The Journey)" features tight breakbeats and a brooding bassline that are hip-hop inspired. But the quick tempo and evocative keyboards and percussion suggest more of a travelogue than a low-rider jam. "70s 80s", one of the set's most effortlessly enjoyable tracks, is built on a straight-up hip-hop rhythm, but then it adds breezy, folk-rock guitar samples, and vocalist LSK's hooky, ska-inspired delivery turn the track into something else altogether.

By the time N.O.W. Is the Time has run its course, you'll have heard Evelyn incorporating elements other, more traditional styles as well. "Be There" and "African Pirates" take up the slinky funk and tribal percussion of Afrobeat. "195lbs", another highlight, is heavy dub reggae with techno flourishes, while "Give Thx" is soul-gospel with a steady Memphis rhythm and rich Philly harmonies.

Jazz elements make their way through many of these tracks as well. Chill, velvety electric pianos are commonplace, especially on a series of moody, cinematic tracks that feature on N.O.W. Is the Time's first third. These, in particular the head-in-the-clouds "Mind Eye" and the mournful, strings-heavy "Calling", provide some of the album's most evocative, affecting moments.

N.O.W. Is the Time has a non-chronological running order, but couched in the album's final third is a handful of tracks from Nightmares on Wax's first few years. They are tucked away here for a reason, as they deviate from the feel of the rest of Evelyn's work. But the whimsical Native Tongues-like hip-hop of "Mega Donutz", the no-nonsense house of "Dextrous" and "I'm for Real", and the proto-drum 'n' bass of "Aftermath" are worth revisiting. They show that, before he became a superstar DJ, Evelyn was well-versed in more heavily electronic, traditionally Warp-like techno, and was pretty good at it, too. Surely these skills have informed the many remixes Evelyn has done over the years, of everyone from Jack Johnson to Ennio Morricone.

Indeed, if there's any constructive criticism to be made of N.O.W. Is the Time and, in turn, Nightmares on Wax's career in general, it's of the very consistency that makes the compilation so solid. After that definitive leap he took from the early to mid-'90s, Evelyn has refined and recalibrated his sound more than he's reinvented it. The result is that, while hardly anything here sounds dated, there is not a lot of boundary-pushing to be heard, either. Basically, each successive Nightmares on Wax album has featured new music made from the same basic ingredients. But, as N.O.W. Is the Time proves, those ingredients usually add up to a flavorful, highly-enjoyable, quite possibly pot-laced brownie.

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