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Horsepower Productions - Quest for the Sonic Bounty

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Artist: Horsepower Productions

Album: Quest for the Sonic Bounty

Label: Tempa

Review date: Feb. 11, 2011

A few weeks ago in Dusted, Dan Bejar, a guy who’s stayed near the indie spotlight for a decade, vented a bit:

    Like every 2.7 years (a rock ‘n’ roll generation?) you have to switch up your colors to match the cultural scenery … or hopefully be slightly ahead of the game. It’s got nothing to do with the work, and is really more of a producer’s game than a writer’s game (not that indie rock in any capacity is really a writer’s game). This reinvention business is generally just market demand. The results are varied, just like in anything else. Good things can come of it, I guess, like disco [Rolling] Stones or “Fool In The Rain,” but I do love acts that have a specific sound, specific vision, and demand that you listen closely to sense the differences.

Listening to long-lasting dubstep team Horsepower Productions, I was thinking along the same lines, or at least the way they were phrased in 1997 by Louis Menand. In a wispy rant in the New Yorker called “The Iron Law of Stardom,” he states that no one can be a star for more than three years.

    There is no penalty for breaking this law, for the simple reason that it is unbreakable….It has remained hidden until now only because it is too obvious… The Beatles didn’t overcome the three-year limit; they simple enjoyed two consecutive three-year terms. In order to do this, they had to be two different groups: lovable mop tops (1964-67), followed by hippie artistes (1967-1970)…

Three-year cycles in culture become easy to pick out once you’re looking for them. In Manand’s essay, he reminds us that there was a time when T.S. Elliot had clogged the popular consciousness and seemed as inescapable as Dennis Rodman in 1997. Fourteen years on, it’s hard to believe either monopolized the Zeitgeist.

Horsepower Productions has never come close to capturing the geist of any zeit. Looking up old tracks on YouTube, it’s 5,128 views here, 18,433 views there. The Horsepower Productions YouTube channel isn’t even run by the group — it’s someone making videos for small businesses. But this rolling cast of producers (Ben Garner is the constant) has a reasonable claim on making the first dubstep sides, more than 10 years ago. Dubstep has worked its way up the pop culture ladder since then, from The Wire‘s record of the year picks for Burial, to The xx’s hollowed-out rock inspired by Burial’s holes, to Shakira’s cover of The xx. Reaching Shakira a good indicator that some three-year cycle is kaput.

If pop culture is fickle, it’s really nothing compared to what happens in underground genres. The scene Horsepower Productions emerged from may love a show of anonymity, but it’s the anonymity of a sniper — the notion that a singular personality can let loose some tracks that take out the dominant sound. Respect goes to the bullet, with full appreciation that there was a person who pulled the trigger. Conversely, listeners at the margins will go weak-kneed over nostalgic sounds if the texture has fallen so far out of fashion that it represents deep knowledge.

Quest for the Sonic Bounty arrives at a time where it can’t really fit into any part of the U.K. bass narrative. Horsepower sat out the years 2005-2008, the cycle when dubstep took command of certain music conversations, and what the group offered up for today breaks no new ground; it could have come from before its hiatus. Still, it’s too soon for these arrangements to seem like a throwback in any knee-weakening way. But this stuff is solid.

Part of what’s gratifying about this record is that there are tangible ties to Jamaican sound, a sway that has all but escaped most Horsepower’s peers. There’s a remix of Lee Perry, for starters. But original tracks have it, too. The atmospherics of “Rain” are British drizzle, but the maudlin beat doesn’t stay down. Slower than ragga, a tick-tick-tosh momentum builds nonetheless, with interjections that could be dancehall airhorn locked in a suitcase. The sub-bass is rubbery, like an old dub bass guitar down-tuned.

“Damn It” has a slow hip-hop thump as an intro, but becomes a straight dub when weezy organ and wah guitar come in. With gunshots and sirens panning, and the volume leaping like someone knocked a fader, it certainly seems to be mixed on an analog board. This does distinguish it from of lot of other dubstep, old or new, where the precision of laptop editing is often on display. Still, that’s a distinction that requires some considered listening. Its no bullet fired in the direction of current styles. Moreover, these sometimes rough samples sound best on big speakers, where attempts at considered listening will be shorted out by the almighty bass.

That’s what’s real appealing here. These sides are functional floor-movers, free of latecomer wubba-wubba clichés, but still unrefined. This is beans on toast dubstep, landing at a time when most are using the ingredients to make a cassoulet. Quest for the Sonic Bounty is peppered with dialog from old sci-fi movies; likewise, these future sounds from a few years back sound just fine today.

By Ben Donnelly

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