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Skream - Outside the Box

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Artist: Skream

Album: Outside the Box

Label: Tempa

Review date: Aug. 16, 2010

How do you know if a well has run dry? Drop a rock down the well--you might hear a thud. Or you might hear a kerplunk. The first beat is a dead sound, the second steps lively. A slow drum track can get emotions rolling by wavering between forlorn thuds and splashy kerplunks.

“Midnight Request Line,” Skream’s breakthrough from 2005, wavers all over that emotional border, lead by a shiny keyboard figure that’s buoyant when the beats are sparse, darker when the rhythms thicken. Both ominous and body-motivating, it became a defining recipe for dubstep as it’s bubbled out of the underground, one that tastes cheerful even when the ingredients are gloomy.

In the five years since, Skream has success remixing vocal pop in the opposite direction, taking stuff like La Roux’s electro and burning it halfway down. He hasn’t made an LP since his 2006 debut, and the last collection under his name, Skreamism Vol. 5, stuck to instrumentals, hefty ones at that. Outside the Box is an attempt to put it all together--the cameo vocalists and unnerving bangers, the cold, the chill, the cheerful.

It’s a mess. The title offers hints of what’s wrong, a cliche that’s more corporate motivational talk than actual ambition. There’s a lot of variety between tracks, but the sequencing does little to showcase them. As a collection, it feels like a bunch of tracks thrown in a box. The vocal numbers dominate in the first half, and it makes the instrumental ending seem like an afterthought. The straight-ahead dubstep numbers are practically cartoons. “Wibbler” is the banging one, “Reflections” is the wistful one, and both sound something a dabbler would stick on Soundcloud rather than the work of a guy who helped establish the motifs in the first place. Albums by Scuba and Lorn show that there’s plenty of water left in that well in 2010, but that’s not where Skream’s interests lay.

That would be less of a problem if the big vocal productions had some stronger songs behind them, real verse-chorus-bridge spines, but the best thing about them is the production. “How Real” is full of great ideas. It starts by putting an accessible melody over a two-step beat, then gradually warps the vocals from mild AutoTuning into complete abstraction. It’s sugary enough for chart radio, exotic enough to stand out among the dross, but the hook ain’t sticky enough to distinguish itself. Likewise, the La Roux collaboration is too deadpan, with both sides of the team getting lost in Gothic swirlies, and forgetting to deliver a payoff.

The best parts of Outside the Box don’t have much to do with Skream’s remixer persona or dubber past, but still stay focused on the thud and splash of beatmaking. “I Love the Way” uses anonymous house vocals over subbass, and achieves the diva-in-a-dungeon bleakness that was probably the intended mood for La Roux number. “Epic Last Song” is more reserved than the title suggests, keeping a steady tempo. What’s epic is the tour through electronic styles--the foreground blurps it’s way through Kraftwerk, New Order, and laid back grooving while the background jumps from two-step to big beat to rave. And it holds together, never sounding disjointed or overly clever. Nothing on Outside the Box suggests Skream lacks skills, it’s that his skills may not be the type that glow under the spotlight.

By Ben Donnelly

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