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Distal - Civilization

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Artist: Distal

Album: Civilization

Label: Tectonic

Review date: May. 17, 2012

A few tracks into Distal’s debut album, Civilization, the Atlanta producer works in a sample. A perturbed voice drawls "Have you ever been to the South? We have a way of doing things." It’s ironic because Michael Rathburn’s way of doing things couldn’t sound any more British. The beat is a ruffle of thin drum machine taps. The keyboard is close, with felt-fabric fuzziness. There’s occasional chirps that echo dub-like in the background. The distinct layers are forced together, becoming a slinking roll. It’s not really the way they do things in the South, dirty or otherwise.

The textures of U.K. bass culture have been showing up throughout the pop spectrum, and Rathburn fits in just fine on British labels like Tectonic and Soul Jazz, which have been releasing his work. When he loops a hip-hop snippet, it feels as if it’s been sent on a tour of Europe first, dissected and coaxed into dancing with a two-step. This isn’t to diminish what Rathburn is doing — he’s good at it. But as electronic dance music finally approaches a mass following in the U.S., it makes one wonder what a U.S. derivation would (or will) sound like,

He gets mixed results when he does full low-end suffocation. "Rattlesnake" checks off the regular dubstep tropes of bare-stripped dancehall thumps and squoodgy oscillations. If it’s more urbane than brostep, it’s also just a genre exercise. Much of the middle of Civilization moves through categories like that; a ravey ‘90s jungle feel here, warm techno pulsing there.

The tracks that are built on longer samples and vocals are more involving. "Temple People" chops up a few different R&B shouts that use variations of the phrase "hit them.” He manipulates them into something like the ping-pong energy of Blawan’s monster Brandy rework, "Getting Me Down.” It jolts, but still sways, thanks to a lazy electric piano sitting off to the side. That gentle touch preserves the soul of stammering main lines.

Strong contrasts like that are where Rathburn shines. Civilization opener "The Sun" kicks off with an industrial chug that might sound gothic were it not for its 8-bit twinkle. Cheery gushes of organs run through not-quite-melodies, spinning up into teakettle frequencies, a complete reversal of the opening mood. "She Wears Pearls" is even bolder in its incongruities. It establishes itself with a sexy sax sample, straight out of some quiet storm ballad, but a beat gradually intrudes. Not a dance beat, so much as a drum corps revelry, like a line of boyscouts with snares. Juxtapositions like this can be an opportunity for getting campy, and it’s easy to imagine a dance-rock act playing up the kitsch, but Rathburn seems sincere in his enjoyment of the source material. On one of 2011’s better tracks, Brooklyn producer FaltyDL (Drew Lustman) used a similar fade on his Hotflush track "Regret.” Even though these men coat their tracks in filters and release them on international labels, the two share a natural affinity for American R&B chillout. Could be the start of an approach that’s well suited to our shores.

By Ben Donnelly

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