Bushwacka! - Cellar Dwellas
I should have known by the fact that this album is credited as "Another 'Bushwacka!' Production" that this was not going to be Bushwacka's real follow-up to Low Life, last year's excellent album made in conjunction with Layo, co-owner of The End. The "another" has implications for the release: it's one of many, a collection of songs that should be viewed in the context of the artist's entire back catalogue rather than an individual work. In fact I did know, and besides which the title "Cellar Dwellas" hardly suggests a particularly charismatic, definitive collection. It didn't stop me from snapping it up though, reasoning that even if these tracks didn't approach the anthemic status of "Deep South", they'd still be excellent produced and quite a bit of fun.
And given the nature of these expectations, I'm not disappointed. When it comes to laidback breakbeat excursions, you'll find little that matches these tracks for sheer sonic inventiveness. Bushwacka's knack is for making the utterly bizarre sound completely normal: "Life Goes On" manages to construct something approaching soulful house out of mutated vocal samples, unpleasantly phased sounds and ungainly breakbeats. "Baseball Bat", like The Orb on fast-forward, lays spacy keyboard work over a sprightly-yet-undulating aquafunk groove which changes its break pattern more times than is decent. "Bluntski" is cinematic electro reminiscent of Orbital circa. Snivilisation. "V.O.A.T." rides a constantly mutating acid line swiped from psychedelic trance over a sea of compulsive electro breaks. This isn't dance music, but on every track except the tellingly titled "Ambient Dub", Bushwacka patches together dense polyrhythmic grooves which undermine any chances of a backslide into the headnodding torpor of most breakbeat.
And yet these tracks still suffer in comparison to those on Low Life, and I've been trying to work out why. Perhaps the first thing I noticed was that these tracks aren't nearly as physically impacting as those on Low Life, which I recently realised bases its low-end seismology heavily on Miami Bass, adding an almost punishing element to the tracks which made the duo's bittersweet arrangements all the more effective. The bass here is still prominent, but it doesn't have the resonant boom that I now know defined my favourite tracks from the last album. The punishment aesthetic worked brilliantly - tracks like "Spooked" and "Dead Man Walking" get harder and harder until they're almost deliriously heavy. In contrast, the tracks on "Cellar Dwellas", despite generally having a climactic point, sound like they have nowhere to go.
Perhaps it's the more frequent use of sampled breaks, which add a slight element of fustiness to the music which the clean, programmed breaks on Low Life didn't. There's nothing at all wrong with sampled breaks, but there are so many anally retentive breakbeat artists out there working at similar or slightly slower tempos to Bushwacka that when I hear them I automatically think of old-skool pietism and the associated creative dead end.
Really though, I reckon that the absense of the more tech-house focussed Layo has upset the crucial balance that gave the duo their edge. These tracks tend to meander a bit until they reach their logical conclusion, lacking the streamlined drive of the more propulsive tracks on the last album. The tension between experimental urges, pop concessions and dancefloor loyalty is what made Low Life distinctive. Here, the experimental urges rule supreme. When I think about it, nearly any of these tracks could quite easily fill in for the more laidback or experimental moments on Low Life without affecting that album's quality, and their placement within the context of the more dance-flavoured cuts would increase their appeal enormously. Bundled all together on one release, they sound both too easy and too afraid to rock out.
My conclusion? If you liked all of Low Life, you'll like this, although probably not as much. If you were generally itching for more of "Deep South" or "Dead Man Walking", approach this release with care. If you've never heard of these guys, go out and buy Low Life today. It's fab.