With the success of 1997’s New Forms, Roni Size and Reprazent seemed poised to take drum and bass from Bristol to the rest of the world. But even after New Forms collected pounds of praise and dominated dance floors, drum and bass never really left its awkward adolescent stage—staying forever a brooding, pimply-faced teenage boy rebelling at his parents’ rock and roll.
Two years later, and jungle remains stuck—albeit happily—in this stage of arrested development. Harder and more aggressive, the bass has been turned inside out into raw fury, sounding like an onslaught of guitars rather than the sub-bass of old. Vocals—female, ragga, sampled, or otherwise—have retreated almost entirely into the dark abyss of Tech Step jungle’s terrordome. In this day when Renegade Hardware rule, and the runaway break beats of Bad Company (not to be confused with the ’70s rock band) dictate every DJ’s charts, drum and bass seems even less likely to break into the mainstream than it did two years ago.
Still, it’s not for lack of trying. Each year, a new hopeful comes and goes like a wisp of smoke—you can trot them out like prized ponies or beauty pageant contestants. All are afflicted with superlative beauty, one-word monikers, and an ethereal female vocalist, and when the interview portion comes, these starry-eyed crossbreeds falter every time. Baxter, Móa, Lamb, and the like, go through the motions of adult-contemporary drum and bass with frightening precision, but can’t answer the all-important question: “If drum and bass were to leave its chosen ghetto, why would you be the one to free it?”
Perhaps a better question: Should drum and bass leave its self-inflicted prison, the underground, at all? Roni Size thinks so, and he plans to unleash jungle on its own terms. With his latest project Breakbeat Era, which includes fellow producer and Reprazent partner DJ Die and singer Leonie Laws, Size may have solved the equation others have struggled with for so long.
On the surface, Breakbeat Era seem like they could be another vapid contestant. Female singer (check) fronting two producers (check), emoting over breakbeats (check), and oh yeah, they’re from Bristol. Haven’t we been here before? Actually, yes. “Breakbeat Era” the single first appeared on Size’s classic 1996 compilation Music Box. The track offered a glimpse into a future where scattershot beats are matched with hairsplitting precision to Laws’s take-no-prisoners delivery. In a few short minutes, Laws emerges as a bastardized scat singer exploding with the untrained energy of punk rock. And now she’s got a whole album: with out sacrificing jungle’s principles or sounding like the soundtrack for a hip car commercial, Ultra Obscene just might rescue jungle from its comfy little dark corner.
Lamb, however, do not fare as well. While Louise Rhodes’s dreamy and distorted vocals on the much-hyped Manchester duo’s self-titled debut were moderately successful at bridging the gap between pop and jungle, the new record, Fear of Fours, flops. The debut kept up-to-date enough with underground drum-and-bass production to give Lamb much-needed street cred; well-done remixes of “Gorecki” helped. But jungle’s studio techniques accelerate so rapidly they leave laggers in the dust, and now Lamb find themselves two steps behind. This wouldn’t matter if they would write a memorable tune, but on Fear of Fours, Rhodes’s singing too often disintegrates into mush underneath the heavy gauze of filter and reverb. I’m convinced there’s a melody in there somewhere, just screaming to get out.
Breakbeat Era have no such problem. If anything, Ultra Obscene has too many hooks, and after the first few listens, they all mutate into one long medley. Laws’s vocals claw their way through complex drum patterns and heart-sweltering bassdrops, attaching themselves into unsuspecting ears with an annoying fervor that usually only happens with unavoidable pop songs you love to hate and hate to love.
So, tempting as it is to toss Breakbeat Era into the bin of rejected drum-and-bass cross over hopefuls, Size, Die, and Laws remain standing after the hoopla. Despite all the talk of taking over the mainstream, BBEra, even if stripped of their audience-friendly vocals and catchy refrains, remain true to jungle’s form. Their tough breakbeats and bass undertow—dropping and rolling, combining funk, dub, and techno like nobody else but Bristol boys could—are made for the dance floor. Even if Breakbeat Era get fancy new digs in Spin and Rolling Stone, and somehow find their way onto main stream charts, somewhere in a packed club someone will be calling for a rewind: Wheel up and come again, please, please, please!
Lamb play the Roxy September 16; Break beat Era play Westbeth Theatre September 17.