Monday, 16 January 2012

A New er... Old Epoch

Dubstep, love it or hate it, has undergone a fascinating journey since its inception. In many ways it has followed the path more commonly associated with characters in epic works of fiction. Dubstep is a perfect example of a tragic hero. It rose from humble beginnings in south London; born in dank, dark and murky underground clubs and basements amidst the urban sprawl known as Croyden, it experienced a rocket-powered-ascension to pop culture. While the genre percolated locally, and flirted with UK Garage producing offspring that were still pretty indistinguishable as a separate a genre, since the early 2000's, (pretty much ruling out the possibility that anyone here in North America is as "old school" as they say they are) it wasn't until about 2003 that it started getting any attention at all.

By this point it was very much a "dubplate" game, with very few tracks getting major release. It was still finding its feet, still sorting out what parameters actually made it "dubstep" until 2005/ 2006. That was things started to get serious. Artists such as Distance, Scuba, Burial, Kode9 and The Bug were all serving to diversify and push the boundaries beyond "UK Garage with a half time feel". More emphasis on Jamaican influence was applied. Sub bass was beginning to become a primary factor. Distorted and "grimey" synth-lines were being utilized. Things were happening. Dubstep was going places.

You could probably state, and not be corrected by even the biggest "heads", that everything really started to change when Skream's debut album dropped in 2006. It seemed like 2006/ 2007 were watershed years for dubstep, and ultimately would prove to be its brief but exhilarating peak. Plenty of new and young (emphasis on young) producers were now making dubstep. It was exploding out of London and into the rest of the world. Releases were becoming more readily available, more DJs started experimenting with dubstep, perhaps incorporating a few tracks into their sets/ mixes. Dubstep labels were popping up everywhere, and established labels were all vying to get into the game. It seemed that everyone wanted a piece of the fledgling genre.

And why wouldn't they? From 06-08 Skream, Burial, Kode9, 2562, Boxcutter, Distance, Benga, The Bug, and Scuba all released memorable full-lengths. Meanwhile producers like Zomby, Joker, Darkstar and Rustie were championing completely different takes on the dubstep blueprint. A new "maximal" movement was taking place. Rather than utilize sub-frequencies, midrange was becoming increasingly popular. Producers like Caspa and Rusko were making a heavier brand of dubstep, while North American producers were also entering the fold with entirely different takes on the sound. Seemingly overnight, dubstep had become everybody's favorite thing.

Then, in 2009 it happened. Everything just became too much. Every night, it was dubstep. Every stage, it was dubstep. Every room, it was dubstep. With so many boundaries that already been pushed so far, where else could the genre, to which you really can't even dance to, go with such a rigid set of rules and formulae? The answer was already here, we just hadn't all heard it yet. Although chances were, that if you had spent any time in the western United States or western Canada, you probably had already heard this coming. What if, instead of trying to even remotely follow the carefully laid blueprints of the genre's founding fathers, producers instead kept only the tempo, and the rhythms (kind of), and scrapped everything else completely?

Well, that's exactly what happened. I can honestly say that never in my life, with anything, not music, not film, not politics, not even religion, have I seen a more polarizing topic than dubstep. Gone are the semblances to UK Garage. Gone is the Jamaican dub influences from which it got its name. Gone is the sub-bass and low end frequencies that dominated towards the middle of the decade. The new surge of producers and sounds has sustained the genre from a commercial stand-point, while those who were listening to/ producing it before 2008, have all moved on to the more generalized "bass music".

Chances are, if you like what is being called dubstep now, you don't like the forward-thinking bass music being churned out, and vice versa. So where does that leave the "old dubstep sound"? Is there room for a pure dubstep record in 2012? One that pays its dues and draws on the right influences? Goth Trad certainly thinks there is. He is a member of one of the last remaining populations of producers who just make dubstep. They don't make brostep, and they don't make bass music. Ironically, these producers have become very rare. With the seemingly limitless potential that bass music has afforded producers and listeners, coupled with the increasingly revitalized house and techno scene, people are probably just getting sick of dubstep, no matter what it sounds like.

Enter "New Epoch", the fourth album from Japanese producer Goth Trad. Goth Trad has put out several releases for Deep Medi Muzik, one of the last pure dubstep labels going right now. This however is his first album for the label. "New Epoch" largely feels like a dark album. I use the term "feels like" rather than "sounds like" since the album tries to go beyond simply being an aural experience. You get the sense that this is meant to be an immersive experience for the listener, much in the way that older dubstep records were.

The first track "Man in a Maze" is a perfect example of this. Using a variety of instruments, as well as taking time to build atmosphere, all contribute to an immersive experience. Once the beat does kick in, the track dynamically changes. The strings vanish and are replaced with a sad and dissonant piano melody. It creates a mood and an atmosphere so dark and foreboding, it almost transcends the ears and puts the listener in another world; much in the same way that "Night Vision" by Distance does.

Comparisons to Distance can certainly be made, however, Goth Trad approaches production from a "more with less" standpoint, most of the time. Tracks such as "Departure", "Cosmos" and "Anti Grid" are a bare-bones example of dubstep, almost working within the confines of proper minimal techno. That isn't to say the "New Epoch" doesn't have moments of maximalism. The distortion heavy "Airbreaker" takes the "riff" that Distance usually incorporates into his tracks, only it is given a does of lasers to accompany it. "Mirage" is another mid-range heavy track that sounds like it could have been produced by Joker.

The album's highlight is probably the only vocal track. "Babylon Fall", apparently influenced by the earthquake that rocked Japan last year, is a by-the-book track. Syncopated and hallowed percussion, 142bpm, low end yet filthy sounding bass, and most importantly: reggae vocals. It creates a depressing and dark vibe that harkens back to 2005. Overall, "New Epoch" serves to showcase what a talented producer that Goth Trad is. It also takes the listener on a hypnotic journey through the course of an hour, one that isn't just listened to, but also experienced.        

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