In the past year or so, dubstep lost its way a little.
For every innovative slice of pulsing bass action it seemed like there were 100 examples of identikit mongy halfstep, each one intent on bruising your ears with a strange mixture of the worst sort of DnB-by-numbers excess, the jarring squall of heavy metal and a sizeable handful of qaaludes.
...this propensity can be diluted into two words – Basic Channel
To be fair, though, there were jewels in the dirt. The rise of the Skull Disco label, co-run by its main artists Shackleton and Appleblim, is but one example of the trend away from sub-bass by numbers and towards the fusion of easy skankin' dub Reggae and deeply repetitive, military Techno which always seemed at the core of the genre's roots, but never quite managed to bubble to the surface.
Bizarre as it may sound, the distinctly ordered climes of Germany may have a claim to forging the resurrection of dub as a musical touchstone amongst today's electronic operators. The city of Berlin has been at the forefront of echo chamber experimentation for at least ten years now, and this propensity can be diluted into two words – Basic Channel.
Both a musical outfit and a label of the same name, the partnership of Mark Ernestus and Mauritz Van Oswald was behind a re-interpretation of dub. It had been long recognised by Kingston sound system acolytes as a firmly energetic music, fundamentally music for dancing, but generations of spliffed-out students playing King Tubby CDs on tinny forty quid boomboxes basically missed the point.
This recognition of dub as a double-time workout, combined with the... well, pretty damn white rhythms of techno, energised 4/4 club music and played a large part in maintaining techno as a viable genre in the post-rave era. Aside from Basic Channel, Ernestus and Van Oswald controlled the Chain Reaction label, before taking on the twin gargantua of house (with the Main Street imprint) and a more purist reggae aspect (as Rhythm & Sound) before splitting last year. But, crucially, whatever they turned their hand to, the slapback delays of Jamaica were never absent.
Fast-forward a few years, and, as dubstep takes hold as one of the dominant forces in current modern electronic audio, the laboratory experiments of these Trenchtown Teutons are themselves being assimilated into a new vibe. This time, though, it centres around a city with soundclash culture at its heart – Bristol. Long associated with maverick reggae-based variants like Massive Attack's Wild Bunch sound, the West Country has used its distance from London as an advantage, and by operating at a remove from the more vogue-focused big smoke has ploughed its own unique furrow.
Key to a new fusion of cold-as-ice percussion and phat-as-you-like basslines is the Tectonic label. Owned and run by Rob Ellis, aka DJ Pinch their releases, in particular by the astonishing 2562, have moved on from the sluggish clichés of the recent past to a fresher take on matters. Not far behind is fellow Bristolian Peverelist and his Punch Drunk label. As content with the constant bassdrum wiggle which help to define both techno and dub as they are the mashed and broken breaks of contemporary dubstep, Punch Drunk releases have provided a much-needed stretch to dubstep's boundaries.
Currently, however, no-one comes quite so close to a perfect hybrid of the cerebral and the physical as 2562, otherwise known as The Haugue's Dave Huismans. His releases thusfar, “Channel Two/Circulate” and “Kameleon/Channel One”, have been a shot in the arm for bass-centric dancefloor music. Other releases under the monicker A Made Up Sound also represent a fillip for those who once found dubstep to be at the vanguard of a new era, only to then suffer a profound apostasy as dublate after dubplate of samey ruffneck sludge seemed to take over.
Is it 140 or 70 bpm? Is it a 4/4 record or not?
At heart, though, you can't quite escape the creeping feeling that there are some pretty exciting times ahead for the genre. 2008's peaktime hit, “Night” by Benga and Digital Mystikz' Coki, represents the kind of bastard sound that just wasn't available to the record-buying public even 12 months ago. Is it 140 or 70 bpm? Is it a 4/4 record or not? It truly doesn't matter, and it's when considerations of that sort are dropped that exciting music happens.
If dubstep can evade the kind of plughole effect than did for Drum and Bass – whereby each record inexorably had to be heavier, bassier, phatter, essentially more Drum and Bass than the last – then, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor, it can avoid the creative cul-de-sac that stifled that other UK-built genre into stylistic Armageddon.
If the innovators and experimenters can keep moving forward (or sideways, or straight into left field) then Dubstep has a chance to be as permanent a fixture on the musical barometer as house and hip hop. Let's just hope the purists and naysayers find themselves drowned out by some top-notch, continually developing tunage.
And the name of 2562's next Tectonic release? Why, 'Dread Techno' of course.
Words by Dave Marcia