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V/A - 5: Five Years of Hyperdub

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Artist: V/A

Album: 5: Five Years of Hyperdub

Label: Hyperdub

Review date: Nov. 18, 2009

Brains and brawn, thinkers and thugs; however you want to put it, movements roll when they have both. Over the second half of the decade, dubstep has defined itself as something distinct in the pool of UK dances genres. Hyperdub, the label run by Kode9, has put out a lot of the definitive records. Kode9 clark-kents as university lecturer. He and his label might be the sharpest set in the scene. This comp, with one retrospective disc and one disc of new stuff, is a solid crash course in a genre that’s currently spilling over its original boundaries, both musically and regionally.

And, it seems, socially. For the last few months there’s been a swell of complaints from long-timers about “brostep” as dubstep has drawn in a wider audience, not all of it boho credible. This is unfolding thirty years after London punk, and it’s like Oi all over again. The lads have start doing the same dance as the cutting edge, before the cutting edge feels like moving on to something else. One thing that’s conspicuous about 5 is the near-absence of bass wobbles – wobbles being the root texture for tracks that just want to get the bros moving. Note bene: In 1979 the Strummer and Lydon discarded the football-chant chorus.

Kode9 and vocalist Spaceape kicked off Hyperdub by taking Prince’s lyric to “Sign ‘o the Times” and putting over a hospital-monitor and distant crashes, calling it “Sine of the Dub.” The same approach is represented here by a previously unreleased 2005 reworking of The Specials “Ghost Town.” It’s like they saw the bruvs coming. The Specials rocksteady is stripped down to barely more than the siren sound effect, as the Spaceape recites the end-of-our-nightlife-is-the-end-of-our-world lyric with the ire of Linton Kwesi Johnson. That inter-textuality is the second heaviest thing on 5.

The heaviest is, of course, the bass explorations. Dubstep reverses the focus of drum and bass. There’s no knots of cut-up breakbeat. Percussion tends towards the spare, the better to delineate the bass rhythms, which can push the lower frequencies to the point of resembling a construction project blocks away. Or the bass can purr comfortably in the foreground, while the rest drowns in echo. It’s here that the 2-step roots come into play. If the alternating beats aren’t as jittery as 2-step garage, they keep things off-kilter. For an approach that’s so heavy on atmosphere and crafting unusual grains, it makes for horrible background music (a compliment).

Some tracks here are upbeat and layered, yet still sound a piece to the mausoleum of “Ghost Town.” Darkstar’s “Need You” is built around a harpsichord swirl that keeps rising and resetting (broken-Bach?!). Joker’s “Digidesign” does the same trick with fried-digital wobbles. Zomby’s “Tarantula” is all bright tones, except the bassline. It creeps and stutters, then drunkenly falls of the beat at the end of the verse. Black Chow cooks up a monster low-end roll with “Purple Smoke” and confounds the menace with a Japanese vocalist. Another Darkstar track, “Aidy’s Girl is A Computer,” is pretty much synthpop, but the vocals are muffled and aren’t allowed to complete a phrase or make sense.

Suppressed voice is the cornerstone technique of Burial, who’s full-lengths have brought the most attention to dubstep. His work is atypical, and a listener wading into the larger scene after being entranced by Burial or Untrue is up for a disorienting experience. If dubstep is a tug-of-war between the contemplative producers and club movers, Burial bypasses it all as the resident poet. “Distant Lights” is a masterwork of studio manipulation: bobbing bass, subbass whirr, vinyl crackle and kick drum blend to make an insistent rhythm that’s hardly there. But what gets under your skin is the diva calling out between pings, the sampled vocals that double up the male lead. “Fostercare,” his new track here, isn’t breaking new ground, but shows that’s there’s plenty more he can do with this approach.

Burial’s initial reputation, and thus the whole genre, was helped along by his anonymity. It started a guessing game that he might be an established producer working on the sly. When it turned out that he was just a kid, indeed just the kid in the hoodie on the Untrue cover, it might have been the moment for the whole scene to deflate. It didn’t happen; dubstep really was a mix of PhDs, mad professors and sweatshirts. Declarations that dubstep is dead probably loom in the near future, but the span of sounds on 5 sure make it seem like a train of thought still on the frontier.

By Ben Donnelly

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