Tuesday, November 19, 2002
While I'm loathe to link to Reynolds over and over again like the fanboy I am, he's largely spot on with his comments on the harder'n'faster nu strains of garage. Like Jess, I've spent my time gathering my thoughts on the Horsepower Productions album because, while I rilly rilly love it, having the whole thudding thing makes me think that I probably don't want to hear much more stuff from them unless they switch up their style dramatically. Excepting the Jameson/DND/Menta (ie. populist) end, the dubplate/hyperdub continuum can be really furrow-browed and fun-hating sometimes, especially when taken on its own - speaking of which, can we agree that Darqwan has been an utter disappointment throughout '02?

Horsepower are comparatively light-hearted (I agree with Reynolds that their sound is more Hidden Agenda, even early Reprazent maybe, rather than Optical) but I really really wish they'd included some vocal tracks a la the deliriously beautiful "One You Need", or not cut out the Elephant Man's toasting on "Log On". Everything is gorgeous and succulent of course, but only HP's production finesse and rhythmic perscipacity rescues In Fine Style from being another fiasco like that Mo'Wax instrumental dancehall album - otherwise great riddims but missing the charisma, the focus, the energy, the point. Of course HP never get quite that bad because they aren't entirely rejecting all the "troublesome" stuff - In Fine Style is riddled with what sound like after-images of R&B, hip hop, ragga jungle, dancehall - but it wouldn't hurt their already great formula to embrace it a bit more (I wonder as well whether Simon has heard "Ring The Alarm", which seems to be the ultimate fusion of all the good parts of garage).

Compare/contrast with these Femme Fatale sets I've been listening to which, while frequently crossing over into dubplate territory, flit between pop fizz to raw-to-the-core toasting so easily, so unconcernedly that comparisons to late nineties drum & bass couldn't apply less. Here we have harsh, stiff-jointed electro rubbing shoulders with frigid-sounding 4/4, with reggaefied rap, with still-flickering remnants of R&B 2-step, and with genuine back-to-97 Todd Edwards speed garage like it's perfectly natural for one genre name to encompass all these divergent impulses.

Simon notes that the "gangsta" element is the crucial addition to the equation of "garage" and "gabba" - the other thing to note is how rough'n'ready and basically banged-out-of-the-studio everything still sounds. By '98, the studio gentrification of jungle was complete, with producers obsessively micro-managing every little bass-modulation and snare-drum while ignoring the pull of a good tune and a firing rhythm (I was interviewing Lemon D the other week and he was going on and on about the importance of tweaking the right bass sound - the whole time I was thinking "yeah, but who but you even cares if you haven't come up with a good tune in years?"). Garage meanwhile sounds as lo-fi and hook-focused as ever, especially since the R&B-aping gloss has faded. The result is that producers end up relying on dynamic and novelty rather than technical proficiency, a tendency that is almost always more likely to push things forward. The two biggest tracks at the moment - that Missy remix and Gemma Fox and Musical Mob's "Messy" - exploit the sheer outrageousness of mixing femme-pop catchiness with bludgeoning apocalypse-beats, in the process pushing the genre into more extreme hinterlands of light/dark implausibility. Meanwhile the hilarious anti-drug rant of Donae'O's "Bounce" manages to sound like a British Busta Rhymes while stealing attention with its irresistible hook, "Don't do drugs! Don't do guns! Just have sex!"

The best thing on Femme Fatale's current set however is, surprisingly, the Basement Mix of Artful Dodger's "Ruff Neck Sound" (the first track played). Artful Dodger have been trying to reconnect with the rest of the scene since the MOR-half left to produce R&B, but instead of chasing the scene this remix projects radically ahead: Richie Dan's ragga croon whines and moans perfectly over insane bhangra rhythms, dreamy bollywood vocals and dramatic strings, while underneath the main beats switch between ominously pacing dancehall and frenetic garage, putting me in mind of the half-speed interludes in "Ring The Alarm", and really this track is in the same league. If you think garage is on its last legs (or if you don't!), check it now.


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