Lest we forget the often transactional nature of music discovery, an anecdote. As I’ve already mentioned, one of the main reasons I’m writing these track analyses and a larger piece piecing an array of UK producers all together first occurred on my first trip to the then-brand new Chinatown record/book store 2Bridges when the owner, learning of my longtime interest in all things UK FWD, passed me Lurka’s “Beater.”
But perhaps an equally if not more important moment occurred when Rough Trade’s Williamsburg outlet basically annexed their “bass music” section—brilliantly assembled by their then-buyer who is now at Commend NYC. Over the course of a month, I was able to score too many $20 imports for $5 and $10, becoming exposed to labels like Lurka’s Fringe Whites and Beneath’s Mistry Muzik for the first time in the process. I came into the latter label via Gaunt's debut twelve for Mistry, Crowd Noise / JP / MMRH / SP12, which was one of the last records remaining in the final days of the fire sale free-for-all. As I'm fond of commenting upon, bargain bins in stores like Rough Trade are often chockful of music that is less readily accessible and a bit more challenging than those top-sellers--basically they're my secret weapon (I know, it's a real mind-blower;)
Having never heard of the producer, I soon found myself pulling up YouTube vids of the EP's four tracks and I'll never forget the feeling of just complete corporeal utterance of "WTF" that washed over me. Here were four wildly distinct tracks that seemed soaked in the go-for-broke aesthetic of 09-era Untold that seemed to flirt with every possible genre yet remain utterly sui generis--though the presence of an often totalizing low-end meant that it would be classed in the increasingly insufficient genre tag of "bass music." My interest in the producer reached a tipping point while talking to Joe Higgins (Metrist, L.SAE) when I asked him what up-and-coming producers he was most excited about and he answered without a hint of hesitation, "Gaunt," a young producer who also grew up their shared hometown of Cambridge.
Born Jack Warne and currently enrolled at the Royal College of Arts in London where he is getting his MFA, what perhaps is most shocking given how intricate and accomplished his debut EP is comes up when he states, "I'd only been making music for a year." Having been in regular conversation with Warne since our first interview late last summer, he has the kind of focused passion and absolute enthusiasm for learning and absorbing as many ideas and influences as possible that is far rarer than it should be these days. Just going by the number of times he asked me what I mean or what I'm referring to when talking about music, he's the type of person who's far more willing to potentially 'lose face' by not feigning total musical knowledge if it means that he'll be exposed to an idea that he can filter through his own singular, always-evolving voice.
Unlike the other tracks and releases we've focused on so far, Gaunt's debut four-tracker didn't really get the media attention and radio play that the others have. But his music has been played out by the bulk of the producers we've discussed so far, including others like Actress and Ben UFO. As Warne himself notes when asked about how he approached the EP, "I honestly was just trying to come to grips with music production, there was no sense of scene or my peers at the time of producing the EP.. I got a small sense of it after hearing the stuff played out on line ups with various DJ's and then I began meeting a few heads, Laksa was first and then Batu. It felt really special at the time, I really enjoyed those moments." And from the opening moments of A1 "Crowd Noise," the sense that one is listening to something truly special is instantly evident.
Opening up with an intro comprised of instantly familiar hallmarks of the previous two decades of UK dance music--gun shot-like delayed kicks, looped MC chatter, those mechanical, percussive sixteenth notes that seem to be holding the whole mess together--"Crowd Noise" sounds like the promise of half-step as first pioneered by Loefah in the early DMZ days finally fulfilled. Retaining that producer's prioritizing of atmosphere alongside bass weight while losing the rigid drop-focused structure, Warne manages to retain the utter rudeness throughout the song's entire duration, introducing the machine-gun kick pattern that comes to dominate the mix ever so slyly in the song's opening seconds. As the bars roll on, the producer continues to add new rhythmic and atmospheric elements, including those ever-popular hand drums, cymbal crash blasts, and echoed vox all carefully hung around the stuttered kick sequence that is one of the few tropes linking so much of the music we've discussed so far. The kicks are soon given an extra oomph around the two-minute mark as Gaunt adds in the swinging, off-beat hi-hat hits that have provided one of the consistent rhythmic hallmarks of this music that enables it all to be mixed together so logically while retaining a go-for-broke mentality that animates the entirety of the EP. And ultimately, it is this unique sense of risk-taking that has truly become one of the few readily identifiable hallmarks of Gaunt's sound, though it's also the kind of nuanced sonic tinkering that often truly comes alive on a proper soundsystem as the remainder of "Crowd Noise" sees the producer sticking to his guns, riding the vibes and groove to its logical conclusion while constantly upping the energy and originality. It's in the song's final moment that it's title comes to the forefront in the guise of a mutilated sample that at first sounds like a garbage compactor vomiting before coming into focus.
Sampling is a vital aspect of Warne's creative process and he credits peers like Bruce for inspiring him to find exciting new dimensions to existing sounds. And whether he intended to echo that most sampled of tunes--ESG's "UFO"--in the flickering howl that rains over the extent of A2 "JP" soon becomes a moot question as that track's downpour of mutilated vocals, pneumatic cymbal crashes, and intricate drum sequencing as that off-beat hi-hat soon enters to send the track off to the races, or so it seems. Just as things start to gain some forward momentum, Warne suddenly pulls back the beat, letting the siren screeches and vocals to frolic as a galloping bass kick ratchets up what soon becomes anything but your typical track breakdown, the rhythmic exchange between the frenetic kick pattern and dutiful hi-hat hits lending the track an almost weightless quality as it seems to head skyward. Warne has a lot of strengths as a producer, chief amongst them his ability to always keep things interesting. He has does that once again in the final third of "JP" as he suddenly lets the beat fade out again before picking up the parts once more alongside a simple, endearing rhythm-melody as the track plays off into the distance.
In discussing the inspirations that gave birth to the EP's four tracks, Warne credits his attending a night headlined by early scene lynchpins Hodge and Beneath, the latter of whom he emailed "the day after I saw him play at a Berceuse Herouique night at Plastic People. Was a really pivotal moment in my musical direction, I said to myself 'That's the shit i wanna make".. that new sound the DJs were playing, it was foreign to me at the time.'" In fairness, it still is foreign to seemingly anyone not making it or following it closely, and that's a quality both Warne and his peers seem keen to retain, never really falling into a readily-identifiable style. What makes the first Gaunt release so stunning in addition to the music itself is the sense of discovery latent in every track.
This sense of discovery has carried over to those DJ's and listeners who took a chance on this very new voice, one that is still very much a beautiful work in process--and with a raft of releases planned for 2018, it seems like we're finally going to get a much-needed update of how Warne has progressed in the intervening years. Sounding like a duet between a set of tom drums and a dial tone, "MMRH" is an especially unwieldy beast, restless and ever-moving as the track opens up on a loud bass tone accenting the martial-like tom beat before the high tone that seems to serve as a bass counterweight sends things into a tizzy, like an army of mechanical birds set free. Much like "JP" and "Crowd Noise," Gaunt keeps the listener ever on their toes as he quickly brings the track back down to earth, introducing high-pitched squalls that blossom over a revved-up kick pattern before letting things really go batshit at the 1:30 mark. Here Warne really shows off his ability at creating highly-detailed yet intuitive grooves as a higher-pitched tom drum bangs out a freewheeling pattern as technoid noise fragments hurtle past, dinging and shaking the craft's hulls until things are once again stripped back to a single, austere martial beat that goes rogue in one of the more unique breakdowns we've covered so far, Warne pitching the sequence upward before letting the hammer drop once more. The track's final two minutes are a delirious, wondrous romp through a raft of rhythm-melodies that keep "MMRH" from ever being considered a "drum track." Even if it is primarily percussive in nature, Warne's use of high-pitched squeals and wind-like gusts casts everything in an atmospheric glow, eventually fading off into the mutant boot camp from which it sprung.
When asked what context if any his music was created in response to, Warne says, "I had no idea what my music sounded like in any context, it just happened. My 'musical' voice is something that has taken a long time to understand, it's been a huge task and lots of hours of tinkering with various ideas and processes. I used to fall asleep thinking about what I was going to make the next day, drum patterns, samples, sounds, it really took up a lot of my energy." He adds, "My musical knowledge was super limited, the reason the record came out so minimal was purely for my lack of understanding within software and processes."
And while "minimal" would probably be the last word that came to mind the first time I heard the record's beautiful and accomplished mess of ideas and rhythms, the lack of melodic hooks and only some glimpses of the vocal sampling styles he would later develop does leave each track centered around one guiding idea. Of course, in the preceding three tracks, Gaunt demonstrates his seemingly preternatural air for intricacy and keeps things excitingly varied throughout, closer "SP12" is arguably the most outwardly ascetic track on hand. As I noted earlier, this EP first caught my attention due to the ambitious nature of each track calling to mind Untold during his most fertile period so far, 2009-2011 when he released such mind-boggling, ass-moving belters as "I Can't Stop This Feeling" and "Just For You." These tracks and others like "Anaconda" and "Stop What You're Doing" were also quite minimal in concept while sounding larger in life in execution, a trick "SP12" deploys to equally destructive effect. Often in reading write-ups and reviews of tracks by peers like Batu and Ploy, I'll often see the words "nearly unmixable" used to describe the rhythmic free-for-all that can be overwhelming for lesser DJ's. That said, of all the records I own, I doubt I own a track more tantalizingly intractable than "SP12." Despite being recorded at a house-friendly, sub-130 BPM, the whiplash induced by the seemingly twice-as-fast drums that open the haunting opening minute is enough to give even the most seasoned DJ rhythmic vertigo. Essentially a half-stepper at heart, Gaunt creates the closest thing we've seen so far to a dubstep-era drop in the fluttering bass pattern and machine gun hi-hat blasts that rest at the track's core. And while the structure of the track is similar to the build-drop-build-drop-coda structure of the bro-step years, it's hard to imagine a DJ like Roska even being able to make heads or tails of the song's rhythmic ferocity. As "SP12" finally reaches it point of utter exhaustion, the free-floating melody that's been laying low in the mix comes to the forefront, ending things on a deliciously delicate note. That it and the other tracks on this release were the product of merely a year's practice with producing may add to the sense of wonderment that permeates the entire EP, but based on the material Gaunt has waiting to be released, we've really only gotten just a taste of the searing ambition radiating from Warne's laptop.