Real talk: What the hell is going on with XL Records? As far as a label's growth goes, XL has long outgrown its cool kid rebel phase. Founder Richard Russell started a label that for the first five years of its existence, compiled one of the most substantial back catalogs of UK Hardcore, according to Simon Reynolds in Energy Flash. Scoring a number of early hits with rave anthems like The Prodigy's "Charly" and SL2's "On a Ragga Tip,", the label pulled back its focus to target groups and artists from the underground whose music could endure the length of a long player while appealing to an international artist. From 1994 to 2014, such acclaimed artists as Basement Jaxx, MIA, Dizzee Rascal, Vampire Weekend, Titus Andronicus, and oh yeah, Radiohead helped establish XL as one of the most influential and successful labels, indie or otherwise, in the world. Factor in the label's ability to hold onto Adele as she blew through the stratosphere and its hugely successful Young Turks label (The XX, SBTRKT) and you've got a veritable empire.
Of course, empires crumble and while XL is certainly not struggling financially (or so it would seem), they don't have quite the sturdy reputation of their halcyon days. Despite Russell previously stressing in interviews his label's commitment to signing one artist a year and touting his ability to translate an underground artist to a mainstream audience, signing more than one band a year begins to sound like the logical route as we accelerate towards peak choice. Twenty years on since XL last flooded record shelves with a scattershot roster of singles artists, they're back at it again just as rave revivalism has cracked the mainstream with Jamie XX's coffee table book of an album In Colour (courtesy of Young Turks, of course). Nostalgia for rave's imaginary past has been animating academic panels on hauntology and introducing Mark Leckey (and his Boomkat-backed label, The Death of Rave, natch) to wider crowd for roughly a decade now, with Burial's Untrue and V/Vm's Death of Rave serving as seminal documents. So when the generic XL packaging from its rave heyday conspicuously reappeared early last year with rave reanimator Zomby's Let's Jam 1 and 2 EPs, it felt like something was afoot. Having made his name on the fantastic hardcore homage Where Were U in 92?, Zomby barely sounded like he was on autopilot with two suites of somnambulant singles. He was followed by Paul Woolford's own hardcore dabblings in the Special Warfare trilogy felt to this listener that XL was having the record label equivalent of a mid-life crisis, content to look back rather than move forward.
XL continued to muddle their message in 2015 when they released their first major statement in grime since Boy in da Corner with Novelist's and Mumdance's traditionalist "One Sec" single. The label's Caroline SM is responsible for this "New Gen" strategy of aligning grime producers and MC's boarding the XL express in the hopes of releasing the contemporary analog of Run the Road, but I'm not certainly holding my breath. 2016 saw the release of two producers whose sound couldn't be further apart, but who were both getting a lot of the right people seriously excited. MssingNo had fused grime and trap with saccharine R&B vocals into the types of bangers that makes you cry while throwing up gun fingers, scoring a massive dancefloor smash with the 2013-defining "XE2." But when he returned on XL with the amped-up four-tracker Fones EP, the preciousness of his debut was gone. The shy kid in the corner of the club who happened to make killer beats had transformed into an aggressive bro who was just a little too excited to tell you how much he loves Ciara and Cassie. XL surprised again when it announced the signing of No Wave dance producer Powell who had turned heads in the previous few several years with his drum-and-guitar-inflected sound that also took in industrial, EBM, noise, and all other sorts of brutal dance stylings. And again, his debut for the label failed to innovate, instead boiling down his sound to the catchiest elements--post-punk beats, EBM-styled arpeggiations--which for the first time in his career felt like a step back. Basically, XL has begun to resemble a claw toy machine at an arcade or bowling alley with A&R folk descending from down on high to haphazardly pluck some of the brightest lights in the underground with promises of mainstream success, neutering their sound in the process.
gli2016 has seen XL doubling down on this strategy, releasing singles from the likes of post-IDM oddball Gila and hip-house heavyweight Kaytranada, both uninspired and dead on arrival. So it was with a heavy head when I read the news that grime romantic Dark0's Oceana EP would be the next lamb up for the slaughter. Having first caught my attention with his Fate EP on ace imprint Gobstopper, run by Boxed co-founder Mr. Mitch, Dark0 is hands-down one of the most melodically-minded producers currently working in grime. Across Fate's six tracks, Dark0 hewed to the emergent trends in "Grime 2.0" with his use of sino-grime melodies, 8-bit rhythmic effects, and trap-informed beats. And yet, for all of his rude boy maneuvering, there was clearly a sentimentalist underneath that hood and cap with laser-sharp melodies, shimmering synths, and a clear love for pop vocals, which he deftly weaves into his mixes as if they were another synth line in his patchwork of arpeggiations.
A three-tracker for Rinse last year showed the producer's 16-bit resolution increasing in clarity and scope, incorporating weightless, or beatless, passages off of the strength of his world-dominating melodies. It also saw him honing his use of vocals, which he pitch shifted and reverbed to the point that they became angelic, heavenly sirens. His love for pop music was also further expounded upon in such mixes as his one for Fact last October that saw him turning in surprisingly charming edits of Justin Bieber and Brittany Spears, serving up his trackswith equal parts euphoria and menace.
So while I was more than skeptical when it was announced that Dark0 would be the latest underground grime artist to be graduating to the big leagues at XL, his signing at least made sense in terms of his actual music, which has become as engaging as it is commercially viable. Of course, XL is investing in Dark0 because kids in the UK are investing in grime as whole new generations of MCs and producers come to the forefront. Despite being around for nearly fifteen years, Grime is just starting to enter its tempestuous adolescence, depending less on certain production staples as producers begin to mine the intersection of halfstep, grime, and trap. So far, this has proven to be a tricky genre nexus as the machine gun high hats that are a hallmark of trap can overwhelm the other elements, watering down the minimal menace that has long been a trademark of the genre. But with both his Rinse and XL releases, Dark0 has established his role as grime's future hit maker through his marriage of pop melodies with limber halfstep heft.
On Oceana, Dark0 further shows off his knack for pulling out the kind of lead synth lines oh which lesser producers could stake a career. But like Rustie, he's seemingly able to cram an endless amount of dramatic and showstopping melodies, achieving similar degree of pop maximalism as the Scotsman. What sounds like a lonely dolphin's sad song kicks off lead single "Forever," the producer taking his time as a metronome-like high hat gently guides a helium-pitched vocal line down to earth, intoning the song's title before a low-slung beat gets things going. The androgynous singer--who sounds like it could be one of the singers from t.A.T.u.--maintains a cadence that echoes a secondary synth line, doubling the melody to create spaciousness in the track that most other bloated, trap-inspired steppers tend to lack. "Luka" is more immediate; a sparkling southern gothic melody acts like the trumpet sounding the imminent onslaught of high hat 32nd notes and hoover-like patches, injecting an emotional energy into the track that leaves you equally drained and elated, as if the bass force and sonorous harmonies are performing some kind of aural reiki, the vocal line soaring through the song's finish line.
The B-Side starts on slightly less grandiose terms, a very plaintive piano that sounds like it's right out of an early-90s deep house anthem dovetailing with a darting synth line to make way for an absolutely devastating halfstep stomp. Without vocals in the first half of the song, Dark0 is able to really flex his harmonic sensibility, writing synth lines that build off one another as they reach for the heavens. The beat and neon synths drop out for the song's coda, the opening piano line returning as a vocalist sings an unintelligible club lullaby. Closer "Heal" offers yet another compelling variation on the 3D Dark0 experience as a male voice that's placed squarely in the middle of the mix hopelessly attempts to overpower the towering synth lines that stand tall like skyscrapers, surrounding the listener on all sides. But Dark0's is a radiant night world where there's always a glimmer poking out from on the counters and a final, conclusive melody enters the mix to end the EP on a comforting sigh.
While I can think of few other grime producers who share Dark0's melodic sensibility--Myth and Mumdance both spring to mind, as does Mr. Mitch--I haven't heard such a seamless fusion of bass pressure, trap beats, and pop vocals in years. Hudson Mohawke tried and failed to achieve this grandiosity on Lanterns while Rustie hasn't been able to quite nail it since Glass Swords. And while Dark0's pop maximalism might not gel with everyone's sensibility, his delicately woven melodies are impossible to deny. What this means for XL going forward is far less certain, but they've at least momentarily broken their slump.