When talking about a certain genre, especially a localized iteration of one, it can be almost impossible not to mention certain characters, even if they aren't the intentional focus of the discussion at hand. For instance, any considered interrogation of, say, Birmingham's industrial techno scene would feel incomplete without at least acknowledging the ongoing influence of Surgeon and Regis. And a look at Dubstep's origin would be severely lacking if it failed to consider Skream, Benga, and Artwork (the bloated pageantry of Magnetic Man is far enough behind us in the cultural review mirror, isn't it?) So in a review looking at two artists' additions to Bristol bass label Livity Sound, one could be forgiven for wanting to take a step back and consider both of these releases in the broader context provided by one Tom Ford, better known as Peverelist: long-time manager at Bristol's den of dub Rooted Records, and founder of Punch Drunk, Livity Sound, and its sister label Dnous Ytivil, all three essential elements in and what has come in its wake.
Ford is a part of even an larger story, one that positions Bristol circa 2006 directly in opposition to London's cadre of Dubstep purists who were increasingly glomming onto the halfstep dread championed by Digital Mystikz, Skream, and Loefah, that while initially revolutionary soon became marked by the scarlet-lettered "Drop." But between 2004 and 2007, the drop grew alongside dubstep's cavernous acoustics; more than just the bass line, the drop in this period was a true realization of the 50/50 proportions drum n' bass, both literally speaking and as a genre, promised. Where the bass in jungle was often resigned to brief, albeit bowel-shaking, rhythmic-melodic stabs in service of the uptempo rhythms and thus lacking the requisite bass space (and weight) for some listeners, non-shitty halfstep (which, in fact, still exists) manufactured a weaponized grade of bass heft that, be it in the form of a well-deployed wobble hook or a mobile and atmospheric rhythm-melody, lurched loudly in tandem with the drums while still providing a foundation for additional elements.
While a "drop," in a strictly musical sense, is the point in a song where the musicians or producer brings in the principal rhythm and defining riff or melody of the composition after building it up, dubstep essentially flipped the script--frankly, much in the way fidget house had done during its blog-backed heyday. By prioritizing bass as the central element, the drop, which had initially been the prime mover in Dubstep's staggering sonic development soon became the genre's albatross, with the audience and producers pushing one another until the scales tipped from inspired drop-led songs to a rather cynical approach to composition that prioritized the drop above all else. Of course, this all coincided with dubstep's stateside invasion that saw the likes of Rusko, who also was instrumental alongside Caspa in popularizing the drop-styled halfstep through their highly influential FabricLive.37 mix. Rusko actually became a 'thing' stateside for a hot minute, arguably helping to cross-pollinate the growingly wacked-out dubstep (or at that point, brostep) with the then-ascendent EDM genre, thus shaping contemporary pop music in a way where it's perfectly reasonable to play pretty much any classic pop or rock song for someone with limited knowledge of the musical landscape to respond, "But where's the drop?"
By the time Skrillex tipped his hat to Croydon while accepting his one of his three 2012 Grammys, the hooded sound boys and girls who gave the scene its vibrancy had long ago fled to nimbler and lighter rhythms and tracks as UK Funky circa 2009--and sultry scene anthem "Do You Mind," recently pilfered by Drake for his paltry "One Dance"-- became the first of several "post-dupstep" genres that rose quickly and burnt brightly until the next wave came in to fill fans' and critics' desire to hitch their wagon to the ascendent genre du jour while never really letting it out from dubstep's formidable shadow. Of course, the full and highly-nuanced story of what has come post-peak Dupstep (2008-present) and how, apart from my own cynicism above, these endless unfolding are ultimately park of the UK's one-of-a-kind hardcore continuum, tirelessly documented by Simon Reynolds.
Now I'm not saying that the story of London dubstep is inherently coextensive with the drop nor is the rise of EDM inextricably tied up with dubstep's decline (though an argument could certainly be made that the cartoonish excesses of one genre became the calling card of the other.) It is, absolutely, an elemental part of dubstep's development and, as Skrillex made quite clear, London is the city that birthed the genre and nourished its biggest start. And as the city has continued to set the pace for much of what followed in dubstep's wake, one begins to appreciate the background against which Bristol has played an integral part in generally serving as a much-needed counterweight to LDN's relentless trend chasing in order to retain its status as the most FWD of cities, developing its own musical style, culture, and genres while assisting in advancing and putting its own unique spin on the many stylings coming out of the capital.
For, as the story has generally gone, Bristol has long fostered a wholly unique sound system culture, imported from Kingston, Jamaica where competing sound systems would assemble towering monuments to bass and treble where cones sent out daggers of frequency instead of bullets (though bullets sometimes came through as well). Bristol's migrant Caribbean community began to replicate their home country's block parties as the city's younger denizens grew up steeped up in roots and reggae, even if they were in a punk band. This foundational fusion between traditional British society, the underground, and sound system culture has been wired into Bristol's DNA for decades, as the city imported and made their own b-boy culture before developing their own strain of beats-heavy reggae and dancehall spearheaded by Smith & Mighty, whose Rob Smith has spanned over three decades of Bristol music, from dancehall to dubstep. This citywide fixation with beats and dub laid the foundations for trip-hop, which took rap and dub influences and drenched it in atmosphere and groove, Bristol bosses Massive Attack and Portishead--with DJ Shadow providing an accidental urtext in the jaw-dropping sampling masterclass of Endtroducing--both contributing multiple genre-defining albums and singles, until the genre eventually exhausted itself (though Portisehead's decade-plus third album, the aptly name 3rd, did a brilliant job of providing a glance at an alternate history, one that sees trip-hop growing and evolving within a greater contemporary musical context). Providing the sped-up yin to trip-hop's still-dour yang, Roni Size led Jungle's rise throughout the city and world, establishing a latent rhythmic and musical paradigm in which rhythm could double as a melodic element, the staggered low-end bass notes reminiscent of plenty of trunk-rattling American rap. While many in Bristol still rep Jungle and DnB, the desire for something slower and more vibey, which was initially quelled by trip-hop, continued into the 00's until Bristol once again grabbed the world's attention by making another city's music their own.
Now, there's no denying that Dubstep-with-a-capital-D is a wholly LDN genre, a high point in the past two-and-a-half decade hardcore continuum whose emergence was an organic evolution of several strains of post-DnB hardcore genres, from Grime, the direct reaction to the UK Garage's excesses and perceived 'softness' that is once again the flavor of the times, to the darker strains of garage and 2-step that were emanating from Croydon's Big Apple Records (home to Skream, Benga, Artwork, and so many more), alongside a new generation of producers who could use rips of Fruity Loops and Playstations to record dubs that would eventually get played in Fabric (Damn, RIP for reals.) So in going back and listening to many of Bristol's dubstep classics alongside Ford's, one thing stands out even in the most derivative of halfstep slogs: Bristol producers understood the "dub" part of the genre better than most and this wasn't just seen in the liberal use of reggae samples early on. A Bristol dubplate would simply reek of the rolling and dynamic riddims that so many of the producers had baked into their DNA, a sense of space and bass sophistication equally present in early Loefah and Mala production.
Unlike their London peers, however, there was never a Bristol version of Magnetic Man. The scene's holy trinity--Tectonic Founder Pinch; Skull Disco co-founder and Applepips founder Appleblims; and Peverelist--never really seemed to run the risk of overexposure as their Croydon counterparts were more than happy to take the limelight, focused more on pushing dubstep beyond itself than squeezing every last penny out of it (and that's a massive oversimplification on my part, as who am I to fault any of these producers for getting paper and it's not like Brighton wasn't cashing in off of dubstep fervor. But ten years later, we're still talking about those producers in a way we're not talking about the Croydon boys, though all the power to them...I fucking loved me some early Skream and Benga). Pinch's Tectonic Recordings arguably hewed closest to the drop-heavy London formula, though that's really not saying much from the guy who produced "Qawwali," still one of the most sublime and breathtaking dubstep classics, and put out seminal plates from the likes of 2562 (aka A Made Up Sound ) and Martyn while nurturing kindred spirits in the likes of Mumdance, Logos, and Roska, the latter one of Funky's lasting stars and the former duo two of more forward-thinking grime producers operating today whose beatless or "weightless" brand of grime has played a major hand in revivifying that genre. It also speaks volumes that arguably the most populist of the three aforementioned label has stayed relevant through diversifying his roster in terms of genre to reflect the current hybridized state of UK dance music.
And it was in Bristol where the idea that dubstep was not an island to itself really began to take hold. With producers already harkening back to reggae and dancehall elements, it made almost too much sense when Appleblim released what many consider the defining record of 'techno-inflected dubstep,' with "Vansan's" rolling percussion and gaping dub chasms establishing a framework of sorts for a cadre of Bristol (and Bristol-inspired) producers to fuse their oblique rolling dubplates to the halfstep flatland, rendering dubstep truly 3D. Dutch producer 2562's knotted rollers "Channel One" and "Channel Two," both released on Tectonic in 2007 served up an electrifying one-two punch by a new name from outside the UK, both releases drenched in a Bristolian sensibility that was light as a feather...that had 5 tons of bass strapped to it. 2562's output dovetailed beautifully with "Vansan" (released on a London label by a Bristol producer), helping demonstrate that the FWD spirit was not only alive in Bristol, but that the city was too becoming a hub for a different kind of dubstep, and the techno influence that so many critics overemphasized was just one part of the story. As we've already noted, a pulsating, galvanizing energy was baked into the culture of Bristol in many ways, from its early embracing of breakbeats through hip-hop in the early 80s to its later fixation with the dynamic dub mechanics and sped-up/chopped-up breakbeats of jungle and later DnB. that sent young and older heads running for the floor. Not to mention that this is a city where sound systems became an essential part of the yearly St. Paul's Carnival, pumping out all kinds of dub and dub-inspired tunes over the decades that certainly seeped into enough young heads in such a way that with dubstep's arrival in particular, Bristolian producers made a name for themselves just by virtue of their meticulous mixdowns and mastering skills. And in this writer's opinion, no Bristol dub operator has tinkered with sound system mechanics in such the way that Peverelist has.
First striking gold with the deceptively simplistic and hauntingly melodic "Roll With The Punches," still one of the most enduring halfstep ballads, so to speak, even its halfstep machinations belied a rhythmic dexterity unlike few others. What would become a trademark stick-like sound that wasn't quite a woodblock, but also not quite a snare click plays against the straightforward beat, adding a 2-step-like skip between the 4 and the 1. Despite the right place "Punches" has taken within the dubstep canon, on the flip of that 12" one will find "Die Brücke," an oft-overlooked gem in this prolific producer's catalog, and a record that arguably sets the closest thing one can get to a template for his production style: intricate tones and direct melodies, swaths of adeptly-applied reverb, a song structure that represents an open-ended knot, and rolling drums that, once all the parts are in order and Pev drops the song's primary elements, won't let up for more than four or eight bars for the rest of the song (in no way is that numerically accurate, but I don't have the time to make it so).
It is the rolling, knotted percussion patterns that Peverelist churned out in this era, in such still-banging classics as "Infinity is Now" and his collaborations with Appleblim including "Circling" that continue, more than ever before, to define his sound, thought at this time it was far dubber and less-streamlined then the percussive workouts he delivers these days, more in line with duptep as a genre both in tone and style. But Pev always seemed to have an exit plan from the fast-expiring genre ready to go. Clearly inspired deeply by the nonstop rhythmic assault perpetrated by jungle and DnB but utilizing an unpredictable and complex sequencing that often feels not even a few steps removed from IDM, listening to Peverelist can feel like watching a circus performer spinning a mind-boggling number of hoops around her/his limbs; Ford's productions are less songs and more like intricate aural perpetual motion machines. Nonetheless, in chronologizing and distinguishing his Punch Drunk and Livity Sound periods, his Jarvik Mindstate LP from late 2009 serves as bookend not just on the decade, but on his massively inventive dubstep period as a whole with the B-side in particular of his final 12" (2010's "Better Ways of Living" b/w "Fighting Without Fighting") released in 2010 for the label that points toward a producer seemingly freed of any and all genre restraints, the smoky haze that had hovered over his dubs cleared to make way for the crisp and clear precision of his percussive patterning and sonic layering.
Having stated in an interview once that his concern was not with genres, but with forging "new narratives in dance music," Ford's new chapter arguably began with a release on the equally established Hessle Audio in London, ran by the trio of DJ/producers Ramadanman and Pangaea alongside the one-and-only Ben UFO, the DJ equivalent of Peverelist in many ways, also chasing and intensifying dance music's continued growth and changes. Not unlike Ford and the family of producers he had assembled while at Punch Drunk--which included such stylish stunners as Guido, Kahn, Hyetal, Bassclef, and Ekoplez--the boys at Hessle had developed a dynamically rolling sound distilled from UKG more than DnB, but with a similar affinity for the immersive side of dubstep, releasing as well as creating propulsive tracks whose woodblock-led percussion and cascading bass that seemed to simply glide over the endless halfstep horror shows towards a post-genre zone with only drum and bass to guide them. "Dance Til the Police Come" displayed a dizzying amplification of the Peverelist aesthetic, serving as the producer's defining declaration of commitment to the promise of Hardcore two decades further to buck authority, do away with templates and genres, and indeed, forge a new path to the dance.
Ford founded Livity Sound in 2011 primarily as an outlet for his rhythmic workouts with then-emerging genre-dabbler Kowton, who gradually channeled his dubstep and grime leanings into some of the more stunning technoid experimentations, which were reined in a bit too safely on his debut LP Utility released earlier this year. To be totally candid, the first wave of Livity never really resonated with me, nor did I understand why, which is likely why I wrote this history-cum-thinkpiece-cum-review. While on closer listen, there's much to appreciate in what Peverelist is seemingly trying to achieve: a style of production never tied to a single genre or style, but rather to create something of a rhythm machine in which he, alongside his Bristol brethren, work together in both a figurative and literal sense to turn out a trove of productions that can fit into basically any clever DJ's bag or USB stick. This is music, created for the dance undoubtedly, but the adventurous one where dancers can contort their bodies to the most obtuse of rhythms. Alas, I often feel that many of the fantastic house and techno DJ's that I admire would not even be opposed to integrating this strain of dance music into their sets, but for many it still carries the dubstep, or post-dupstep, designation, and thus many assume this is drop-centered drivel (or they know it's well-reviewed but can't be bothered to keep up with the genre, lest they miss out on the latest breakthrough. In house. And/or techno.
And it's especially a shame when the third and oft-overlooked member of the Livity Sound founding fathers, Asusu, is putting out some of the most accessible, yet sonically adventurous tunes Bristol has to offer. Asusu's debut was nothing short of a statement from the label that after the first 12 of Kowton's and Pev's dutiful rhythmic meshworks, Livity went and dropped a house/garage hybrid in the glorious form of "Sister". Its nimble percussion and enveloping chords also became something of a red herring as on his next release, he showed his chops in ways that we're still feeling today. The massively influential "Velez" introduced a new type low rider-styled bass-driven techno (maybe?) that has left its stamp over releases by the likes of Lamont, Paleman, and other London bass merchants. With the three latter-day 'nuum nomads having dominated Livity's output up until this year, outside of Pev's collaboration with Hodge last year, they soon coupled their outlet with a sister label, Dnuos Ytivil in 2012, that has emerged as one of the most exciting breeding ground for a new wave of bass engineers that includes Bruce, Batu, Hodge, and Simo Cell, who will soon release the first new Livity solo debut, the EP Gliding.
As previously noted, Livity's first run of releases, from 2011 to 2013, were generally percussion-focused affairs that skirted across and folded in rhythmic elements of dubstep, techno, house, and jungle with ease, always maintaining a simple yet effective melodic sense redolent of IDM. Following that period was year of remix 12's, signaling a rest almost for the label, though its production trio remained active with releases on other label and their hugely popular live shows, perhaps incubating what was to follow. Since the label has revealed its new cover template, a twisted-up human form against a colored background, the music has seemed to follow apace as even the most taut polyrhythmic assault now tends to have a radiant glow to it similar to the effect of watching Dorothy in The Wizards of Oz go from monochromatic to RBGreat. While the percussive heft is strong as it's always been, Pev and Asusu in particular have been successfully navigating the intersection of IDM-level rhythmic and sonic complexity that will still turn a party up (Kowton's stripping back of his robust rhythmic engine and stoic focus on sonics over melody led to Utility being an at-times staid affair, but his last 12 for Livity was deftly on-point.) As the label's core trio has sought to expand their respective sound and percussive toolkits, it makes sense for one of the minor league stand-outs from Dnuos Ytivil to graduate to the big leagues after a promising early showing that shows a keen sense for melodic atmosphere alongside the rhythmic chops one would obviously need to hang with the Livity crew. With a new voice being added to the label's main trio to continue its dedication to forward-thinking bass music, co-founder Asusu returns to the label after a three-year absence, having stated his own Impasse label last year and releasing two unusual 12's, both containing a radiant, widescreen banger on the A1 followed by a handful of ambient cuts. One need only look at his mix for Secret Thirteen last year, which was rich in seminal musique concrète and computer compositions, to know that this guy is intrigued by sound design, which in Bristol's sound system culture, makes a lot of sense. But what has made Livity Sound stand out has been the fact that it's as focused on the dancefloor as it is on sound system sonics, sometimes to its detriment, making both releases an excellent opportunity to gauge the current health of the label and the legacy that Peverelist continues to oversee.
Having popped on many a head's radar with his 12" for Dnuos Ytivil--the downright paranoiac patterings of "Cellar Door" b/w "Piste Jaune"--Parisian bass operator Simo Cell née Simon Aussel makes his most high-profile release to date with the four-tracker Gliding EP, expanding both his rhythmic pallet and emotional range while not exactly pushing the label's sound into especially ground-breaking territory. Despite the relative on-the-nose-ness of opening track title "Glider," the track still succeeds at providing an ethereal opener to the affair, its post-garage skip providing the primary propulsion as just-pretty synths whirl around the stilted beat that never quite seems to achieve left-off, rather hanging tight in lower orbit. Well, at least Simo Cell can cross off "dawdling ambient UKG mutation" from his production bucket list. The more readily identifiable, and stronger for it, "Obi1" returns the listener to familiar Bristolian territory with its pounding yet dubbed-out halftime rhythmic intro accented by a patient clanging-pipe polyrhythm filling in the space of the off-beat, laying down quite the lush percussive patchwork for a grumbling bass part and a ghostly whimper. With the drums and bass tasked with carrying much of the weight, the whimper eventually turns into a howl from which comes pouring trickling, glassy sixteens, providing the necessary rhythmic potentiator to animate this rainy dirge to its end.
"Away From Keyboard" is a rather interesting proposition for it possesses the sound pallet and structure that would undoubtedly benefit from some post-"Asusu" ass-dropping bass and forward-facing percussion, causing the listener to realize how insufficient bass music can be without a real beat. While I love the complex rhythmic indecisiveness of IDM, there's a reason it doesn't tend to get played at the rave: many tracks feel like they never get going due to restless, almost-ADD-like drum programming. This is a frequent issue I take with a lot of fantastic bass producers, from Pearson Sound to Appleblim and even some Peverelist tracks. But for all its urgent and intriguing sonic variables--the EKG beeps, the multi-tiered syncopation, an Inception-like bass growl that's delightfully bowel-churning--they never coalesce into anything substantial, ultimately collapsing under its own weight. Alas, a similar fate befalls the lovely-sounding "As Long As We Have Those Things." Pining synths that seem to build and fade organically in a way not often seen outside of Selected Ambient Works II are left to breathe on their own as rapid and reverbed stick hits aim, and fail, to add some direction to the track, ultimately feeling like an insufficient complement to the rich atmosphere he builds.
Marking his 2016 debut, Asusu continues his experimentations with a more straightforward and Detroit-indebted style of techno and electro, both cuts perfectly chiseled for dancefloor dynamism while retaining the nuanced and ambient-styled sounded design that he also indulged in his Impasse output. With electro the order of the day, "Hallucinator" covers the A-side in a patented 808-tom driven trek through a city blanketed in darkness, its lead melody bristling with a cybernetic energy imported directly from the intergalactic factory that Cybotron built. Adding a sense of urgency is the angsty, albeit club-friendly, counter-melody that nimbly teleports itself across the mix until space and time catch up, leaving us with those toms and an ominous sonic stare whose tone carries right onto the B-side. "Sendak" opens on more familiar ground for the producer and label with its pounding polyrhythms and dreadnought leanings, but with a pulsing, Berghain-ready high hat. As the intro dips into a beatless valley, a buzzing synth drop that can best be described as 'post-Hoover' melds with the restless high hat and a tweaking stick-like snare on the two and four to assemble a meaning, po-faced techno-electro hybrid that deftly utilizes the producer's signature organic drum patterns to absolutely devastating effect. Recalling the unbridled energy and unhinged synths of those early Objekt 12's alongside "Velez," Asusu manages to slyly advance his sound by looking backwards.
I won't lie; I was a tad disappointed when I saw that both Asus tracks would be of the electro flavor as I was hoping for something a little more unorthodox from him. Oh, what little faith I have. After all, both of last year's releases clearly pointed in this direction, but the producer greatly benefits from boiling down those eight tracks' disparate ideas into two elegant electro stunners. While neither track might have the lasting impact of "Velez," with "Sendak" coming awfully close, it turns out a rolling electro beat suits the producer better than many of his DnB-fleeing peers--I'm looking at you Jon Convex--taking a major cue from Pev himself in the process: when you've got a catchy melody or brutalizing hook, no matter how simple it is, sometimes it's best just to let things rip and allow the absences to amplify the present. This is a lesson seemingly lost on Simo Cell this time around. While his Dnous Ytivil tracks succeeded in establishing an effective emotional vibe through through their rhythms and melodies working in service of one another to keep feet moving, across these four tracks the producer never quite seems to nail the juggling act, placing a lot of ideas on the table with nothing of much worth to really show for it. Nonetheless, Livity Sound retains its reach in probing new and exciting depths in bass music and as their sound has begun to infiltrate such dubstep bastions as Tempa and Swamp 81, it's only likely that they're going to switch it up in unexpected and fantastic ways. And Peverelist? The best thing about being a fan of his is that he always remains an open question, and so we just need to sit back and continue to watch with glee at what he'll discover next.