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V/A - Round Black Ghosts

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Artist: V/A

Album: Round Black Ghosts

Label: ~scape

Review date: Aug. 1, 2008

Even setting aside its awkward title, this compilation has a hard time supporting its main argument that the fusion of dub-wise composition and electronic dance music is full of diversity and excitement. Actually, it ends up arguing against that diversity by offering 10 tracks that, with a few exceptions, display a disappointing homogeneity.

In light of the comp’s geographical spread (there are producers from London, Leeds, Bristol, the Netherlands, Berlin), one would hope that distance would bring differing approaches, but that doesn’t happen. It may not be the fault of the ‘preset’ bugaboo thrown around so often these days, but the sounds, from the drum tracks and bass tones to the mid-range arrangements, are all too similar. The same thin thwack stands in for a snare hit on many of the tracks, and the hi-hats lack that crucial ear-singeing sizzle. And the much vaunted ‘womb-like’ bass of dubstep? While certainly present in size and mass, it fails to express anything articulate. Bass should do more than drone and throb; it should push and pull, accentuate and suggest.

What variety there is comes from the rhythms themselves, the faster tempos and more intricate rhythmic structures engaging the most. Peverlist and 2562 turn in jittery, energetic rushes as much informed by techno as by dubstep. On these tracks the pointillist percussive tracks work best, their diminished girth allowing detail to flourish.

The compilers have suggested that a passion for deep bass, handed down from dub, is what links these tracks. But dub, in its original conception, is surely about more than bin-rattling low-end. And that ‘more’ does not include superficial signifiers like samples of toasting MCs and melodica phrases (both appear here). Dub is about transforming a set of sonic givens, disorienting changes in the form of sudden dynamic shifts and packing surprises into every bit of space available.

In terms of tonal palette and structure, ~scape label founder and RBG’s co-compiler, Stefan Betke, a.k.a. Pole, turns in the track that most deeply engages dub’s ability to transform, disorient and surprise. The tune’s rhythmic foundation is similar to the others on offer, but it’s the swirling dialogue that Betke builds around this base that sets it apart. He gradually introduces jarring elements, adding and subtracting not only his trademark smears of glitch, but snatches of feedback, static and meaty snares.

It’s when Elemental’s “Raw Material“ hits, with its brassy hi-hats and syncopated accents pulsing in unstable communion with techno’s crescendoing intensity, that it becomes all too clear what the other tracks on this collection are lacking: immediacy – the sense that the transformations happening, the sonic space being filled, is evolving now. Such tracks are individual highlights of a whole that is considerably less than the sum of its parts.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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