By Joseph Marshall
SBTRKT, text talk for ‘subtract’, is the recording name of Aaron Jerome, a London based producer who until recently chose to remain hidden behind a tribal mask. His single ‘Living Like I Do’ was a chart success earlier this year, featuring the soulful voice of Sampha, whose heartfelt presence also graces a sizeable chunk of this album.
The opener, ‘Heatwave’, announces itself in pompous tones before a chattering, scattered beat kicks in which will have you thinking ‘right on!’ Matched with layers of Sampha’s voice, which allow him to harmonise with himself and various astral noises, the track has you ascending through the atmosphere in a rocket ship.
‘Wildfire’, the tune likely to receive the most radio play, is a mean groove, drawing influence from Detroit techno in the beat, as well as acid house in the escalating depth of the synth which rides it. Yukimi Nagano of Swedish indie band Little Dragon, who also made an appearance on the Gorillaz concept album Plastic Beach, adds vocals with an edgy attitude, making this a track with strong pop potential. ‘Hold On’ prominently features the dull and clunky, cave-man sounding drums that are a SBTRKT staple, alongside enchanted chimes, creating a high impact, emotional number. Something which makes it drag a bit though is the slightly tuneless delivery of the words ‘you’re giving me the coldest stare’, which would have been okay were they not a focal point of the song.
The lyrical content is strongest on ‘Trials of the Past’, which combines woozy, mournful drones with a driving broken beat. Lines like ‘you’re a carrier of the light inside of you’ feel deep and ethereal. It’s an unusual point of reference but the words ‘ghoulish entities come creeping through the walls’ could be taken from tortured rapper MF Grimm’s poetic forays into dark aspects of the psyche. There are naff bits here too, such as ‘like the ghost of Christmas past’, an unexpected Dickensian allusion which is sung as if Sampha was ad-libbing and didn’t know how to finish the line. Taking into account the song as a whole though, you’re likely to embrace that part because it doesn’t sound half bad in the context of this sincere, atmospheric ballad.
Aspects of ‘IDM’ (Intelligent Dance Music) or ‘brain dance’ (music for your mind as well as the club), bubble away in bloops and blips throughout this record, surfacing on ‘Go Bang’. The rich strings recall the same milieu as μ-Ziq, who was prolific in the genre and went on to found Planet Mu, currently a leading dubstep imprint. The close attention-to-detail production and often fractured nature of the beats will have your cerebral cortex boogieing like there’s no tomorrow.
There’s scraps of a more contemporary influence too – James Blake. He can be heard in the choral layering of vocals on ‘Never Never’ and the snappy interjection of Nagano’s voice in the first few bars of ‘Wildfire’. He becomes most noticeable on ‘Something Goes Right’, where Sampha is almost doing an imitation of his style, as if playing around in the vocal booth. ‘Right Thing To Do’ is the most traditional song in terms of structure. The introduction of a garage beat a few seconds in might prompt you to laugh because it seems so absurdly outdated, as if listening to a pirate radio station ten years ago. But that isn’t to say it’s a poor track – touches like the windy, dubsteppish voice and graduating trumpet snippet make it something new and memorable you’ll want to listen to again.
On the whole this is a well constructed album from an artist with his own unique aesthetic, which comes from fusing the best parts of UK electronic music. I don’t believe it will have huge replay value, but it should keep listeners hooked in the coming months.
8 OUT OF 10