Is electronic music turning into the underground equivalent of New Age music?
IT CERTAINLY looks that way, what with all these young Brits going soft in the head with gloopy string arrangements,extended suites that take forever to gain momentum, and a preference for amorphous excursions into the interior nether world over tight song structures. Two recent practitioners of this neo-age tendency are Talvin Singh and 4 Hero — artists whose need to straddle multiple styles at once have resulted in albums in which beats tend to be window dressing rather than the main event.
O.K. is Punjabi DJ Singh’s first official full-length solo album; his 1997 release, Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground (Quango/Island), was a compilation that showcased DJs who, like Singh, combine breakbeats with Anglo-Indian flavah — humming sitars, tribal tablas, and octave-swooping devotional singing. But where Anokha hinted at the diversity and daring of London’s Indian dance movement, much of O.K. takes a surprisingly conservative approach.
From the outset, it’s obvious that Singh wants O.K. to be his career-defining statement — it has the kind of stylistic sweep and leisurely sprawl that either demand your attention or tax your patience. The album’s opening track, ‘Traveller’, is an extended electronic pastoral symphony that meanders for well over 10 minutes. With its tastefully boring flute solo, ham-handed orchestral flourishes, and wimpy, pitter-patter drum ‘n’ bass ambience, ‘Traveller’ is dance music on Prozac. Like so much of O.K., it’s too mild mannered to strike eardrums with any dramatic impact.
In interviews, Singh has always stressed his desire for ethnomusic pillagers to preserve cultural context on the dance floor, as opposed to merely cross-fading in the occasional Beatles sitar lick when the mood strikes. I’m down with that, but much of O.K. proves that keeping it real organic isn’t only a white man’s burden. On tracks such as ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Mombasstic’, the Asian instrumentation lurks uneasily on the sidelines, waiting to be invited into Singh’s chirping sonic terrariums. Most of the time, I don’t know if I should be dancing or watching an episode of Lonely Planet.
Things take an encouraging turn about halfway though the album, however, when Singh ditches his buttoned-down gentility and begins to explore what happens when worlds really do collide. On ‘Eclipse’, Singh double-tracks Shankar Mahadevan’s drupuk singing, flicks the autopilot switch on the drum machine, and lets his nimble fingers fly across a battery of tablas. The end result is a dizzying tantric megamix. Same goes for the title track, which artfully works a children’s choir and sarangi fiddle into the blend. Unfortunately, Singh loses his sting on O.K.‘s second half, which reverts back to dull, ethnographic fussiness.
Like Singh, 4 Hero’s two turntable protagonists, Dego and Mark Mac, know how to craft dance-music epics whose reach extends beyond 12-inches. The duo, who have been major players on Britain’s drum ‘n’ bass scene for most of the decade, produced a third of Goldie’s ambitious debut, 1995’s Timeless (ffrr), and tend to work with more than dusty vinyl for their remix gigs — their 1997 rethink of Nuyorican Soul’s ‘I Am the Black Gold of the Sun’ (UNI/GRP) features live strings, for example. Like British DJ turned producer Roni Size, 4 Hero like to explore what jazz and R&B melodies sound like when they’re wrested from their natural habitats and plunked into the mechanized landscape of contemporary electronic music.
The double-CD set is divided into two distinct sections, or pages. The first page weaves grown-up funk, jazz fusion, and the pseudo-Angelou-isms of poet Ursula Rucker into a seamless whole, using the crew’s crafty rhythmic undertow as its connective tissue. Sultry, elegant, and not particularly underground-sounding, Two Pages‘ approach strongly echoes Size and groove collective Reprazent’s 1997 album New Forms; by bridging the gap between drum ‘n’ bass primal beats and more traditional song-based genres, 4 Hero hope to proselytize electro-skeptics.
For the most part, it clicks — tracks like ‘Golden Age of Life’, ‘Third Stream’, and ‘Spirits in Transit’ (sounds like something straight outta Return to Forever’s repertoire, doesn’t it?) sneak in jungle rhythms so subtly among the plush strings and things, you barely notice you’re being inoculated with a dose of techno flavor.
Two Pages‘ second disc doesn’t bother to dress up raw programmed rhythms in fancy finery — it’s pure, uncut drum ‘n’ bass without any vocal or instrumental ornamentation, as ominous and chilly as the album’s first disc is cozy and inviting. 4 Hero’s breakbeats may sound familiar; but fortunately, Dego and Mark know how to splice and dice their way into new rhythmic terrain.
Two Pages may be an admirable, ambitious stab at drum ‘n’ bass crossover glory, but one has to wonder: If media-savvy Size couldn’t make it as an overground sensation, do 4 Hero have a prayer? Let’s hope that they do.
© Marc Weingarten, Vibe, November 1998