Spring Jungle, 1996
1996 has been a year of more sub-division and splintering within the drum'n'bass arena, and I dare say that there's gonna be a whole lot more to come of clashes of opinion and doubtless also a multitude of recriminations from everyone who claims to have the definitive angle on what the 'real' jungle is supposed to be. Recent events have begun to show this indeed, with Goldie, as some self-appointed (Metal)Head Honcho of the Drum'n'Bass scene pushing his vision of Modern Urban Breakbeat Culture through the hoops of Rock principles. Just why he has decided to do this is puzzling, seeming to be at odds with a lot of what were/are the most appealing aspects of drum'n'bass, which is that it is a very defiantly NONrock sound, is very much more to do with feeling and passion and music (that all important 'vibe') than to do with personalities and 'stars' in the traditional, Rock manner. Why Goldie, who invented his own terminology/language to try to express the culture of his breakbeat music should now resort to using tired old terms is beyond me, and is redolent of everything I have found so enervating and downright BORING in the recent pop/rock climate. People like Weller and the Oasis boors talking earnestly about 'real' music with 'real' instruments is not a million miles from Goldie trying to create a 'real' music drum'n'bass image, as if that's somehow more worthy or artistic. It's not, it's just dull, pointless and self defeating. I thought of drum'n'bass as echoing Vic Godards ideas from 1977, of "No more Rock and Roll for you" / "We destroy all Rock and Roll." but now it seems as though people like Goldie are reneging on that implicit promise. Still... at least the 'underground' is still healthy, right?

Uhhh... maybe. But look at Bukem. Always one to espouse the importance of 'keeping it undergound', he unleashes the fiasco that has been the 'Logical Progression' compilation. Now, forget for a moment the sheer brilliance of much of the actual noise on the records (much of which, if you've been an avid follower of this Good Looking/Looking Good / Metalheadz labels axis thing in the past couple of years you'll already have of course...) and look at the CD packages. The one, the standard double package available through all your independent stores who have been the foundations of Bukem's 'underground', the other, a special Digi-pak double with 'Extra Track' and available only through your friendly local Our Price. Now I'm all for this stuff to be available in the High Street, battling against the rest of the 'real' world, but to do so with this sort of cheap shot is a pathetic stunt that feels like a real kick in the teeth to all those who've been supporting Bukem's labels by buying up his vinyl in the UNDERGROUND stores these past years. It must feel even more like a big Fuck You to the folk who run the stores. It's just more of that Playing By The Big Boys Rules... the rules written by the 'rock' aristocracy. I tell you, it makes me yearn for the days of Sarah records putting out compilation LPs with black labels, ridiculously cheap prices and sleeve notes telling you, if you cared, that this was a POLITICAL statement. Making an issue of having 'no previously un-available tracks'. But then we'd have to deal with Brighter and the Golden Dawn, and I think again.

All of which leaves us... where? Well to be honest, I'm not really sure... just out there in the stores listening and perusing, being choosy, checking the noises rather than the rhetoric. Here's some reviews of some faves.
Source Direct: The Crane (Source Direct)

"Everybody was kung-fu fighting..." Recent trends in the drum'n'bass arena seem largely to have been in two directions: either throw a load of jazzy horn samples at some breakbeats and hope they stick, or make a windswept landscape of Gothic whimsy and call it 'dark'. Both directions have given at best a handful of gems in a quagmire of mud. One of the gems of recent weeks though, is this from Source Direct, one of the names to place a modicum of trust with in the current scene. Drifting in with a synth wave that weirdly puts me in mind of Microdisney, this really leaps into action with some Depth Charge styled kung-fu snap kick noises, and then subtly builds Amen breaks until its abrupt conclusion. Behind the hard beats lies a mist of metallic synth and an almost sub-aquatic radar reflection, whilst the kung-fu kick crashes into the mix at opportune moments. Kung-fu fighting soundtrack extraordinaire. A cut which is quite literally, as they say; 'Kickin!'

Photek: Still Life / The Rain remixes (Razors Edge/Metalheadz)

Goldie may be losing the plot with his own stuff, but his labels are still worth checking, particularly on the Metalheadz off-shoot Razors Edge. Here the ubiquitous Rupert Parkes remixes his own Photek cut 'The Rain' from his 'Natural Born Killas' ep from Metalheadz95 and turns in a version that sounds harder, sharper and darker than last years summer hit. Similarly, in re-jigging Goldies 'Still Life', he conjures the in-vogue 'darkside' sound by stripping down, laying the beast bare. It's dark drum'n'bass that thankfully doesn't fall foul of the trap of melodrama, making dark noise without coming across all Gothic and overblown. It's a far cry from the jazz inflected sounds of summer 95 that made everyone notice the drum'n'bass pioneers, but in the current climate in light of Goldies's recent moves, one that is refreshing and more than welcome.

Photek: UFO (Photek)

There was a load of expectation for this, the sixth release on Parkes' own Photek label, in light of which it wasn't surprising to see nearly everyone go overboard with praise. A few dissenters have expressed concern along the lines of 'it's not big and it's not clever', but as always I think the truth lies somewhere in between. What really makes the UFO cut work is the sample of soldiers (who sound more Canadian than American to these ears) chasing a UFO which drifts through the beats. It makes for a great intro, and hooks you from the start. It's also like a great vocal refrain in a more conventional song, in that you find yourself 'singing along' with the 'lyrics'. Musically though, it's no great progression from the previous Photek releases, and it's beats aren't especially intriguing or dancefloor hard... in fact from this point of view, it's not up to the standards of the Samuri or Water Margin cuts of last year. That said, it still sounds cool and makes for great headphone soundtrack to bus rides and daydreams.
Alroy Road Tracks (featuring the Duke of Harringay) (Spymania)

Anyone who caught last years' 'Conumber' EP, or the Squarepusher remix of DJ Food for the Ninja Tune 'Refried Food' package (also on their Joy Of Dex LP) will have been looking forward to this with great anticipation. Thankfully it does not disappoint, with what seems now to be the Tom Jenkison (for it is he) trademark of a bustling, full of quirks and avenues sound that is funky and intelligent in one go. Funky Dolphin Drum'n'Bass, anyone? Whatever, these four cuts (or five if you count the two parts of Saracid as separate) are packed with sound and texture that bustle with imagination. With stuff on 'big' labels (an LP for Warp is in the offing) due later in the year, you can be sure that Jenkison is going to be one of the names of 1996. If you haven't already, get in now and prempt the rush.

Tom Jenkinson / Dunderhead: Dragon Disc 2 (Worm Interface)

More underground Jenkinson tomfoolery on the bizarrely titled worm interface label. As above really in terms of description... you get two Jenkinson cuts, 'I Was Livid' and 'Peace Nail'; both of them forging ahead into the d'n'b frontiersland with scarce a care for what the 'afficionados' say it should sound like. There's a jam packed sound here, but it's still not airbrushed smooth, and the all important space in the beats is still present. Ditto Dunderhead, who has/have (?) two cuts on the flip and about whom I know absolutely nothing bar the fact that the sounds are infectious. Seek it out.

Alec Empire: Hypermodern Jazz 2000.5 (Mille Plateaux)

Easy Listening Space Jazz, the sound of underground cavern cafes on Pluto, the noise that the aliens should have been playing in the Star Wars bar. End of the century piss-taking and/or demented genius forging new styles from old. 1950s/60s views of the future, naive ideas that come on like Eagle comic asides. Dan Dare surfing on sine waves, the Mekon getting it on with a funky/phunky Martian. Doped teenagers in love, watching the skies for clues.

Weird, warped be-bop techno jazz for the Generation X-Files.

Jedi Knights: New School Science (Evolution)

More space warped techno, this time more on the funky tip than the wired jazz. There's a veritable glut of noises and effects to enjoy on this trip through the imaginations of the Global Communications bods, but it's never self indulgent to the point of pointlessness. In places vocoder vocals shack up with electro style phunk beats whilst elsewhere there's a snatch of Monty Python Knights of Ni tomfoolery, and then again there's a cut where Mulder gives his views on the Truth being out there over a drifting spacescape of sound that starts with the pertinent question 'do you believe in the existence of extra-terrestrials?' Well do you? It's the fin de siecle obsession on everyone's mind these days, and this could be the perfect soundtrack to it.

© Alistair Fitchett 1996