Saru: Downtempo Dojo

Maurice Bottomley


Downtempo Dojo

Label: Shadow
US Release Date: 2001-06-26

It used to be Trip-Hop now it's Downtempo. A better name, I think, if a little unspecific. Anyhow, this is as good an example of the beats and bluntz, student-friendly end of the Dance market as any. Not that there is likely to be much dancing going on while the post-modern landscape of Downtempo Dojo floats dreamily in front of you, even if the rhythms are more rooted in club-culture than some efforts in the area -- which is not actually saying too much. No, this is basically dope-smoking music; regular nods of the head and the occasional inane grin will suffice.

Its target constituency will love this record. Check out to see their already positive reaction - though how they get the energy to run a website is a bit of a puzzle. But what's in it for the rest of us? Just enough, I would suggest. It won't change your world - it certainly won't rock it -- but the bass drops with the right amount of tonnage, the mood is mellow and the musical textures are rich and resonant. It does tail away towards the closing stages -- these sets usually do. I got to track nine (out of twelve) before complete torpor set in. However, if atmosphere and slightly deranged dubbiness are what you're after then this has them by the truck load and will keep you amused, if not exactly mobile.

It starts promisingly, displaying the high production values and that cinematic feel we have come to expect from all the Shadow stable. I was won over by the first track, largely because it samples Scotty and Lorna Bennet's "Skank in Bed" -- always a good idea. This does however raise a serious doubt about the whole genre. Although the rest of "Posterity" (they go in for song titles like that) is reasonably self-reliant some of the most amenable tracks do leave you thinking, "Didn't Lee Perry and King Tubby do this thing first and rather more impressively?". The assured "Bamboo Shadow" is pure '70s dub, with a thin veneer of white boy intellectualism. Likewise, much of the second part of "Duality" (the first being a very acceptable electro-Satiesque doodle) draws from the same waters. They are both eminently listenable but nothing that couldn't be more than matched by digging out those old Black Ark recordings. Still, that is no more the case for Saru than for Massive Attack or other early explorers in the field. It would be nice, though, if some of the newer artists were more open about the sources of their "inspiration".

Still, these are different times and such carpings are probably beside the point. The bottom line is this -- either Saru will chill you out, in an esoteric but undemanding fashion, or they will bore you to death. In their favour is intelligence and something I can only call good taste. Their use of sampling (including some fine deployment of an acoustic bass) is generally more imaginative than on many similar productions -- and there is no denying the earnestness of the project. There is restraint too; the common tendency to throw the kitchen sink into the mix has been avoided. Complaining about lack of tempo is of course foolish but there is even one attempt to lift the BPMs. "Waking Up" -- of course -- is a momentary, though welcome, aberration. After that we slip snugly back into the stoned and the somnolent.

Saru (I am assured it's Saru even if it looks like Sarj on the cover) are Steve Branson and Jim Behrens. They like the miserabilist end of British music rather too much for my comfort but know their turntable culture well enough to avoid being simply depressing. There is also an evident fascination with Japanese culture as well as the more obvious drug reference points. Saru means monkey in Japanese and a zen, meditative quality does seem to hover around the music. I wouldn't push this too far but there is some attempt at exploring emotions and consciousness -- and not just at the narcotic level.

So -- Mood music with a few pretensions? I think so. That and a real talent for knitting together disparate tonal elements and laying them over some satisfying beats. A little too arid for a lengthy stay, but the sound collages and relaxed meanderings that make up this disc are worth at least a short visit.

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