Roni Size & Die - 11.55
I really should have bought the new Reprazent album by now, but there's just too much excellent stuff I'm finding for dirt cheap (latest treasures: ESG's A South Bronx Story and the first The Loft compilation on the Nuphonic label, both for $5 each) to justify shelling out for a full price new release. Besides, thanks to Napster I've been listening to all the old Full Cycle releases from the pre-New Forms years, and marvelling at their brilliance. I know that buying In The Mode so soon after discovering these tracks would only lead to immediate disappointment.
Of all the Full Cycle releases, "11.55" was undoubtedly the best, and as a statement of purpose it sums up what the Full Cycle crew were trying to do within the realms of drum & bass more succintly than anything else I can think of. "You could feel all the tension building up at the convention, as the hustlers began to arrive..." is the sampled quote at the beginning, and you just know this is going to be a dark, moody affair. It starts innocuously enough though, with a simple beat, a Jaco-like, questioning bass figure and bright, airy synth progressions. Then the intensely-syncopated, almost latin-flavoured metallic snares start over the top. From then on it's a non-stop trip through some of the most intense breakbeat mutilation put to tape.
"11.55" does have the jazzy elements that most people associate with Size and his cohorts, but while jazzy jungle's biggest crime was its ultimately limpid smoothness, here the jazz influences are used in tandem with the breakbeats in order to confuse the listener. Jazzed cadences reminiscent of Dillinja's "Deep Love" or their own "Music Box", sudden Oriental flourishes and becalmed saxaphone blasts all float in and out of the mix, disconnected from the rhythm and eachother. Importantly though, they're competing with sirens, sickening bass drops and the terse command "Come on!" for the listener's attention.
It creates a sort of tense ambiance, a hypnotic effect that is nevertheless antithetical to a state of motionless and calm. Rather, this is the sort of hypnotism that is achieved by a constant state of liquid motion; once your body realises that the attack never stops, it adjusts and adapts to an unending state of awareness similar to a trance. I guess that's why this sort of drum & bass is often labelled "minimalist". That's a bit of a misnomer as well though, because the breakbeat programming (surely, along with the bassline, the most important aspect of any drum & bass track) on tracks like "11.55" are anything but minimalist. "11.55", which layers chopped-up break upon chopped-up break until they're almost unrecognisable (though the giveaway wooden creak of the Paris break is a dead giveaway), glowers with a cruel complexity, and an almost melodic sense of syncopation that they subsequently came close to only with "Share The Fall" from New Forms.
I suppose I should explain that: when I say that the rhythm sounds almost melodic in its syncopation, I don't mean that it uses lots of varying beat tones, or that it's overly complicated. What I guess I mean is that the rhythm created is so unforgettable that it takes over from the melody as the first thing you remember about the song. On most of my favourite jungle tracks (Omni Trio's "Thru The Vibe", Dillinja's "Angels Fell", FBD Project's "She's So" and "Gesture Without Motion") the choruses are not vocal interludes or keyboard melodies, but sudden rhythm breaks so otherworldly and brilliant that the surrounding melodic detail seems irrelevant. On "11.55" and their other early classics, Size and Die made the task easier by simply jettisoning concepts of melody and instrumentation.
Anyway, being reminded of the brilliance of their early work, as well as a sizable chunk of New Forms (particularly the consistently great second disc), I find it doubly annoying to come across so many innacurate accounts of Roni Size et. al, which usually pinpoint their achievements as mainstreaming jungle and fusing it with R&B etc, never mind that the only thing that distinguished New Forms for non-scenesters from countless other jazzy jungle albums was the Mercury Music Award, or that it's one of the least commercial jazzy jungle albums I can think of. Never mind that the story did not start in '97, but rather three years earlier, when the Full Cycle were making some of the most inspired breakbeat music of the nineties.
Incidentally, as well as "11.55", the other early Full Cycle releases I suggest you look for are (in descending order of neccessity) "Fashion", "Timestretch", "It's A Jazz Thing", "Angels", "Phizical", "I Remember", "Destiny", "Set Speed", "Friday Nite", "Music Box", "Dayz" and the original "Breakbeat Era"... all priceless moments of breakbeat seismology.