Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Devine Collective aka Devine Recordings aka Mad One, Murdz and Others

I'm not trying to be legislative when I suggest that sometimes certain artists just seem to represent the quintessence of a genre, to capture some constellation of qualities that, while not exhausting the possibilities of the style, nonetheless acts as a kind of metonym for an entire scene, for everything in the scene the track doesn't reproduce as well as for everything it does. As you'd expect, the only artists who can do this are precisely those who don't have a singular and unique aesthetic - rather, it's like their musical flesh is animated by the impulses of the genre-spirit itself, as if they were somehow a manifestation of the dialectical movement of the style as a whole, playing itself out through contradiction and resolution before your ears.

Critics don't tend to go for that sort of thing, but rather for the very opposite; if there's one thing critics love, it's iconoclasts. Devine Collective - sometimes known as Devine Recordings, sometimes broken down to their individual producers Mad One and Murdz - are anything but. Their tracks are distinctive of course, anthems usually, but they don't provide visions of the unknown future so much as bottle the excitement of the open present - capturing the ever-present sense of possibility in funky, their tunes always standing at the crossroads and staring in every direction at once. And, of course, their tracks rarely if ever sound like one another.

If there's a thread of consistency to the collective's music, it's maybe that they always remind me of that long-since abandoned term for the nascent funky scene, "urban house" - not in the literal sense of sounding like R&B or hip hop, which obviously is pretty common in funky, especially these days. Rather, in the sense of sounding like house strained through a series of "urbanising" influences, and specifically very London urban influences at that. Simon Reynolds once said of Basement Jaxx's "Jump & Shout" that it had managed to concoct an entirely separate fusion of house and jungle to the then prevailing sound of speed garage. Devine's tracks feel like a never ending series of such concoctions, each bringing different ingredients to the table and ending up with very different results.

The story begins, appropriately enough, with "House Girls Part One" from late 2008, the group's first big hit and most well-known track, especially after appearing on Marcus Nasty's Rinse 10 mix. It's also one of their simplest efforts, for much of its length a stripped down banger of kickdrums, one-note bass booms, "Inflation"-style 5 beat snare patterns, piercing synth bleeps, staccato organ vamps and a timestretched vocal shouting "Giiiiiiirrrrrrrlllllllssssssss" in time-honoured "Arrrreyouuuurrreaadddyforsomeblaaaadclaaaattjungglllettechnoo?" fashion. It's an irresistible masterpiece of economy with slow-tease reveals to spare - when a ravey high-pitched female vocal sample starts to yell "yeah yeah!" towards the end it actually sounds like your drugs kicking in.

"Tribal Conga" emerged at about the same time, but sounds totally different - a slightly unnerving combination of itching, rollicking tribal percussion, a frail-sounding high-pitched piano hook and valkyrie synths hovering warningly in the distance, while sly trombones provide a sludgy, ennervated central hook, the musical equivalent of a car failing to start - only, bizarrely, it works brilliantly. Whereas the structure of "House Girls Part One" is deliberately simple and flat, an endless plane upon which discrete effects can run parallel to one another (in a Kraftwerkian, music as an autobahn sense), on "Tribal Conga" all the elements are mutually implicated, impossible to detangle from their intricate state of codependency. It's not straightforwardly banging enough to be an anthem proper, but it's the kind of track that's always a pleasure to listen to, a welcome presence in the mix as it adds an air of understated malevolence. In typically connoisseurial fashion, MC Rankin' always singles it out for special mention, marveling at the piano hook in particular - dude knows what he's talking about it when it comes to this stuff.

The simultaneous appearance of two such different takes on the funky template - both by main producer Mad One - have set the tone for the group's subsequent efforts, which seem to jump from idea to idea with little in the way of consistency beyond that general sensibility of urbanized house music. "Gotta Have It" is a ridiculously catchy, ants in yr pants number, a descending piano riff and a scatting female vocal (sounding like "Dah dahp! Daah hrurvurr!") set against a straight 4X4 kick drum that then drops into a riveting drum solo of ostentatious broken beat fiddliness. Here Mad One is playing off the seeming contradiction between funky's house-based simplicity and rhythmic adventurousness, the frenzied leap from one pole to the other and back again a literal staging of funky's entire complicated relationship with house music - without the friction building tension of the 4X4 sections, the sudden bursts of funk drums would be meaningless, but in context the effect is thrilling.

"When, Where" is pounding bleep-house enlivened with gorgeously cheesy salsa-tinged high-pitched female vocals but threatened by an ominous trombone bassline. "Dirty Funk" is the kind of raw but musical instrumental cut that (like the VIP remix of DJ Naughty's "Quicktime") seems to recall grime while never actually sounding like it, all cutting tribal percussion and ominous synth-strings. "Never Coming Out" is high-drama piano-house, its insistent, tugging riffs reminding me of Fuzzy Logick at his most classicist, while its even larger sequel "Never Coming Out Part 2" swathes the same structure with seething synth sweeps and supple samba piano ripples, and then enormous string stabs heralding the end of the world. "Night Train" is practically hard techno, its ruthless percussion loop and nervous strings building a taut, anxious groove with not an ounce of fat or softness - Fagan Lee has compared it to Dave Clarke, which is spot on.

The two most recent Devine Collective tracks to become anthems are at once the group's most "People Keep Dancing" feels like an unofficial sequel to Donae'o's "African Warrior" from 2008: both take the veneer of Africanness so common to UK Funky and make it the music's main selling point via a series of interlinked impressions and associations - Africa as in the jungle as in jungle as in rhythm. "People Keep Dancing" is less aggressive, though, and more seductive, weaving its sinuous, hypnotic groove from eerie animal noises, lush synth pads, flickers of horns and a rolling, roiling rhythm that seems to furl and unfurl like densely interlaced foliage. Over it, an intense sing-songy vocal intones "We inna jungle / and we about to make money in a bundle / that's why we play our bongos / 'cos there's nothing that we can't handle..." Kinda ridiculous, but "People Keep Dancing" is entirely straightfaced, any humour transmuted into the seriousness of ecclaesiastical ritual. "Tribal Day Dream" is a darker take on the same template, its nervous tribal (duh) beat full of unexpected fidgety stabs, while ominous bass drops and hysterical strings provide the perfect backdrop for the portentous announcements of a very serious, fervent MC: "It's Devine Collective / and you know this beat sounds hectic... We bring Peace! Love! and Unity! So share the Love! There's no need for War! So get on the dancefloor!"

There's a seriousness of purpose to these tunes that marks them out, but should not be mistaken for "seriousness" in the sense of grimness or aggressiveness or high-production values - rather it's simply this sense of conviction that settles over the tracks, the resolution that funky can feel important without having to strain towards satisfying anyone else's notions of what important music should sound like. As with everything else about the group, this emerging sense of confidence feels organic, a creeping realisation shared between you the listener and them that, actually, this can be the most exciting music in the world. If you feel passionately about UK Funky as a scene, Devine Collective's status as emergent ambassadors makes them even more treasurable than they would be otherwise. I also can't deny enjoying the air of mystery surrounding them - the evocative lack of information about the group or its origins or its intentions, the painstaking cross-referencing of a host of unknown, unattributed but amazing tracks into some sort of roughly coherent image. But I'm prepared to give up this private enjoyment and let others start to run with it, if it means these guys will start to get the reputation they deserve.


yeah, thats exactly the point. there is no need any more for iconoclastic, pseudo-avant idm beats.
just a small shift on the 'basic' patterns of generic urban music have the potential to communicate much more things than the solipsistic, meaningless, wanna-be-experimental music out there.

urban/street bass music has reached such a point of accumulation of experience that now is possible to play organically (and not formalistically) with itself... creating a very affective language.

By Blogger gutted, at 1/29/2010 2:34 AM  

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