Dubstep's mammoth, often wordless productions rest on bass that drifts about in a shuddersome low range, but the word "range" is better left entirely out of discussions of this maturing genre. Although commonalities in dubstep exist, producers in this still-burgeoning scene are perfecting distinctive flourishes and influences and prompting an overhaul of existing boundaries, just as it was necessary for the sound to grow out of the underground dance experiments from which it came. Contemplating the "range" of dubstep, be it within its circle of prominent producers or however far this exceptionally provocative genre will travel, is limiting; the proof of its reach is in the recent Tectonic Plates label-spanning collection, as well as in several of the releases that have come out of the U.K. in 2006.
In two CDs, Tectonic Plates culls the 10-inch vinyl-only releases from a heavyweight Bristol-based dubstep imprint called Tectonic. From the first track on the first disc through the end of the mix on the second, as provided by label head/producer DJ Pinch, Tectonic Plates is deafeningly thunderous, a thrilling cross-section of the label that features cuts from Loefah, Digital Mystikz, Skream and more. Its sprawling 33 tracks are a head-bludgeoning via thick sub-bass lines ("Iron Man") and leering melodies ("War Dub") that crawl reluctantly toward their resolutions. It's worth mentioning that not one second of this collection escapes its weighty, coagulating momentum.
"Slang," as presented by Manchester's MRK1 (formerly called Mark One), is a pummeling on Tectonic Plates that begs for playback on subwoofers and obnoxious 5-footer monitor speakers. Its squiggling synth lines, minimal and piercing, are catchy but ultimately powerless. "Slang's" occasional "gangsta shit" dialogue sample rides beats that merely punch — the monster beneath is the rumbling, delay-tweaked bass; where grime producers may have made a little room for vocals in the mix, these individuals add bass on top of bass. Though MRK1 probably applied this brawny formula to "Devil Boy," the instrumental counterpart to "Slow Down" (a single from his grime outfit Virus Syndicate), the bass on "Devil Boy" is pelted with hip-hop scratch sounds, as if he's cutting records. "Devil Boy" is featured on the recent Science Faction: Dubstep compilation, which is mixed by New York's DJ Clever.
Clever's Dubstep mix disc for the Breakbeat Science label is another vicious sampling of this abundant genre. It plunders the Hotflush and Planet Mu labels, and incidentally spotlights a couple of the producers on the Tectonic Plates compilation. "Qawwall" is characterized by a slick, if infrequent, synth snippet over shuffling beats. It's just one of Clever's many memorable picks, and it happens to be a production of Tectonic's DJ Pinch, who also knows how to pick 'em.
Olli Jones swipes the captivating first slot ("Bahl Fwd") on Pinch's Tectonic Plates, and he's also just dropped a full-length album. A 20-year-old native of South London's Croydon borough, Jones is called Skream by those who know his production — the fruits of a work ethic that is said to manufacture at least one 12-inch a week to add to the 1,500-some under his belt.
Although Skream has probably authored enough of his melodic dubs to fill a stack of albums, Skream! on London's Tempa label is his first. His "Midnight Request Line" is more than a year old and understandably revered by most dubstep advocates abroad. It rattles with analog-sounding synths, gunshots and Metroid bleeps, but is bounded in atmospherics that were born in the dub and reggae genres. Watery echo effects and skittering reggae keyboard riffs also surface in "Blue Eyez," a full-blown dub celebration — Fender licks and toast samples abound. It's worlds stronger than "Kut-Off," which feeds off jumbled beats and organ patterns that nauseate as effectively as '70s prog rock does. Skream! is hot and cold, but its coldness isn't the type that swoops in and out of the other notable 2006 dubstep moments.
Burial's eponymous full-length Hyperdub debut has garnered considerable, unanticipated acclaim, and its rewarding textures, both intimate and spacious, will guarantee its place on more than one list at the end of this year. The mournful, sparse arrangements are broken only by the fleeting appearances of a shrill, back-alley found sound or vocal sample (except on "Spaceape," which features somewhat undesirable spoken-word vocals by Spaceape). Some snippets are severed, or trail off and disintegrate atop Burial's unsteady, percussive jabs of software-rendered beats.
As Blackdown, writer/dubstep producer Martin Clark (who recently compiled Tempa's Roots of Dubstep collection) also experiments with the use of chopped, delay-laden vocal samples on his "Lata," a hypnotic 12-inch single whereon Middle Eastern string loops mingle with Clark's slowly bubbling beats. Clark tapped Burial for a ghostly remix of B-side "Crackle Blues," so that crackling brushfire sounds smolder under a nodding, woozy tempo. The rhythm still plods, but the pace of growth quickens, charring black any idea of a "range" in the ambitious, varying dubstep genre.
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