Melding the current sounds of grime and dubstep with folk melodies and wispy female vocals, Various takes Massive Attack where it should have gone.
Well, have I got the scoop for you today -- concerning Various, a British collective of musicians and vocalists responsible for one of the defining electronica albums of 2006. The group doesn't appear in photos in the press, declines to name its vocalists and collaborators, and generally shrouds itself in a music-above-image … image. Well, I got the scoop: Various are two guys, Adam Phillips and Ian Carter. They're friends who live in London. They're 24 and 25. They got mashed up in Amsterdam two summers ago and Ian spent a night blacked out in a gutter. Adam has a girlfriend but Ian's single. The album that gets the most play when they're high is Mezzanine. They caused such a stir with some of their singles that the group got chased by labels Warp, Planet Mu, and Leaf, before settling with XL, on which they're releasing their debut full-length, The World is Gone.
OK, I can't back all of that up. Truth is, Various (or Various Productions, as they were known on a string of 7-inches quietly released over the last year) are about as mysterious as they come. It's not a bad gimmick because the band's ensured that the first thing anyone's going to say about it is to point this fact out. Bigger question is, if people are listening to this because they're wondering who these guys are, how much does this image distract from the group's excellent debut long player?
On to the music, then. Everyone's going to tell you about the vastly different genres that are all thrown into The World is Gone; I want to try to explain how they fit together into a cohesive (or at least understandable) whole. To put it in a general context, the music runs the gamut from Britain's underground electronica sound (dubstep and grime) to Sinead O'Connor-esque wispy folk. In fact, the first two tracks outline the limits of this range, in a kind of exposition; the following ten fill in the spectrum, crafting some new niches along the way. It's been called folk-grime (or grime-folk), but there's no single label you can give this collection of songs, which veers this way and that somewhat schizophrenically. The thread that hangs across the album is an ominous, swirling atmosphere of midnight danger.
I was going to write that Various are best on their upbeat, ominous, of-the-moment excursions into grime and dubstep, but then I remembered how soft and beautiful their other stuff is. "Deadman" echoes with a twisting, gentle guitar background, low and non-obtrusive bass sounds slowly welling up behind. A disembodied flute glissandos, and the full success of the group becomes clear -- in a subtle but extremely effective way, they've created and sustained the strong feeling that we're all doomed.
Having said that, Various' electro/grime bangers have an immediate appeal. You can't go past the opener, "Thunnk", which loops in delicious industrial dirtiness; "Sweetness", with the sleaziness of the Presets as well as their electro edge; or breakout single "Hater", with its flat female vocal spouting animosity incredibly casually, and a massive swishing beat that grabs you and won't let go. Elsewhere, the two ends of the musical spectrum are brought together, creating a new type of electro for-the-morning-after. "The World is Gone" begins with a gentle Middle Eastern vibe, but in the background these stuttering, billowing effects; halfway through, the track builds deep, expanding in texture to a truly monumental groove. Brilliant.
Though a few of the experiments don't have quite the same punch ("Soho" whines a little too vapidly), Various neatly avoid dipping into the late '90s trip-hop pool occupied by Massive Attack and Portishead. While the combination of sultry, serene female vocals with chilled-beat electronica is immediately recognizable on this album, the nature of those beats is thrilling, and all new. Various' media image may dominate the words written about the group, but at its base The World is Gone wants to say that all music is created equal, and that there's equally much to love about every piece.