There's much more to dubstep than just Burial. This compilation is a great entry point into one of electronic music's most interesting subgenres.
This compilation couldn't have come at a better time for me, as I've been having a love affair with dub music for the last year. Dub music's palpable low end, flirtation with negative space, and fascination with studio technology can turn even the most mundane source material into a relaxing yet disorienting listen. Since witnessing dub legend Lee "Scratch" Perry's hilariously slapdash, yet oddly compelling, performance at last year's South by Southwest festival, I've procured as many of his most renowned albums as I possibly could, given his vast discography and my meager budget. I eventually branched out from Perry's oeuvre to investigate the works of his contemporaries (Augustus Pablo, Keith Hudson) and his artistic descendants (Scientist, Mad Professor). I had no clue, though, where to look for good 21st century dub.
Enter London musician Burial, whose sophomore album Untrue clued me in to the existence of "dubstep", the latest evolution of dub. This subgenre is exactly what its name implies: a fusion of dub's sonic manipulation with the skittish syncopation of British two-step. When the Soul Jazz label released the first installment of its Box of Dub series, a Burial track was given central placement in the track listing, a prescient foreshadowing of the hype that Burial would receive during the second half of 2007. Critics and bloggers worldwide rushed to portray him as the central figure of the dubstep movement. He's conspicuous in his absence from Box of Dub 2, but it's probably for the best, as this installment spotlights equally worthy artists who haven't received nearly as much press.
This time around, the most well-known name in the line-up is Pinch, whose recent debut Underwater Dancehall has been hailed as dubstep's next great album (an assessment that at least one fellow PopMatters scribe may agree with). His two Box tracks possess a menacing dissonance that isn't normally associated with dub. On "Step 2 It", he interrupts vocalist Rudey Lee's smooth crooning with blips and crashes that might make it difficult for listeners to "meditate on the vibes," as Lee advises us to do in the lyrics. On this song and "Chamber Dub", Pinch leaves his bass lines in hover, untethered to anything approaching melody.
Pinch's tracks are easy listening, though, compared to some of the others. Cult of the 13th Hour's "Wickedness" boasts a hissing, blistering beat, atop which a stentorian vocalist commands an unnamed force to "bring this greedy nation down to its knees". It's the kind of track I would imagine Linton Kwesi Johnson making if he weren't so busy writing books and lecturing. Sub Version's "Soul-Jah Boogie" is even scarier. Almost every sound in the song that isn't bass or drums is run through so much reverb, delay and panning that listening to it makes me feel like I'm sitting at the bottom of a well, while surrounding trains derail all around me. It is, hands down, my favorite song on Box.
The contributions by Digital Mystikz ("Thief in Da Night", "Third One") and Cotti are the closest that Box comes to sounding like traditional dub, with arrangements that are both lusher and more melodic than anything else on the compilation. Cotti's "Let Go Mi Shirt", in particular, boasts three-part vocal harmonies (courtesy of Kingpin) that hark back to classic reggae groups such as Culture and the Mighty Diamonds. However, this music is called "future dub" for a reason. Even the compilation's most retro tracks are created through synthesizers, samplers and sequencers, as opposed to "real" instruments. The technology used by these artists may have been unfathomable to dub artists three decades ago, even ones as imaginative as Lee "Scratch" Perry. If you've been looking for an entry point to one of the most interesting subgenres in contemporary music, here it is.