Rouge's Foam - Always Read the Label: Night Slugs. Here you can listen to this blogpost as spoken word and together with the musical examples. Download this as a high-quality mp3 and listen elsewhere by clicking the arrow on the right of the player.
This’ll be first in an intermittent series of posts in a new format going by the hilarious title ‘Always Read the Label’, with each focussing on a certain record label du jour and going through their catalogues and artwork, or at least picking highlights.
Why labels? It’s as good a category as any other in a context where the ways in which music is and can be grouped – artists, genres, scenes, releases now in all shapes and sizes, etc – are less and less clear-cut. Artists in themselves are less likely to remain as consistent between albums or tracks as they once were. Genres (or as I prefer to call them, styles) have shifted in size, scope and consistency; indeed, the conventional late twentieth-century models and expectations of stylicity in popular music no longer apply. That’s not to say that the cohering effect of stylicity, its repetition, its recurring specifics, no longer applies, they just apply at different levels and along different paths. But the extinction of that term which attempted to invoke a new form of stylicity as a ‘transversal’ theme (w… w… what did we call it?) proved too offensive and its scope too strange to catch on, and ever since then huge quantities of electronic dance music has, especially, resisted being, well, ‘labelled’. The old categories and structures through which music was portioned out and packaged have melted away. This point has been made many times before, but it bears repeating that whatever bubbles up in this more fluid milieu shouldn’t really be judged using (or against) those old categories and structures. As Blackdown put it, ‘the problem is this new, delocalised structure doesn’t fit with previous patterns of tight, focused scenes. So if you went looking for that and that only, you probably didn’t find it [in 2010].’
Today, the musical grouping created underneath the umbrella of a record label can be seen as pretty arbitrary relative to the selectiveness involved in grouping a style. Conventionally speaking, a label is not the same a style, but the items in a label’s catalogue usually show some degree of family resemblance, however that manifests and however faint it may be, and can be taken to represent a locus of musical variability, like the inside of a circle drawn with a compass. Moreover, a record label can shift or widen its locus of variability (i.e. change its style) without causing a crisis of identification, unlike a style, because the label remains the same. Taking record labels as subjects of online music criticism can also go some way to mitigate its problem of selectively feeding on positivity. If you just blog in praise of what you’ve enjoyed then music is never negatively criticised, leading to the cheerleading effect of ‘it’s all good’. With a record label you get a mixed bag in its entirety. Finally and perhaps most importantly, a small underground record label is (hopefully) a community of people working with a common interest. Focussing on cohesive communities as subjects rather than individual artists and their works makes a relatively minor but welcome change from the commodity-oriented consumption of music through self-contained, specially chosen works by specially chosen individuals.
First up, then, is an obvious choice. Night Slugs dominated hardcore dance in London and many people’s listening in 2010. The label’s rise fits snugly between the beginning and the end of the year – January saw the release of their first EP, Mosca’s ‘Square One’, and eight EPs later in December their reputation had grown hugely, having released one of the pretty much consensus tunes of the year (Girl Unit’s ‘Wut’) and a first compilation of prior successes, remixes and original material (‘Night Slugs Allstars’). With their first artist albums to be released this year the label will soon reach the next level, making this a great time to take stock.
Despite having become a bit of a poster child for the supposedly all too nebulous stylistic pluralism in UK dance music today, I would say that the characteristics of a Night Slugs release have so far been pretty distinct. Part of the reason that defining the scene’s characteristics seems difficult is because doing so requires a broader method for identifying and classifying genres than by the type of beat they have, for example, which had hitherto been predominantly the norm. Stylistic groupings in electronic dance music aren’t always defined merely by their recurring beat structures, or even their bpm or degree of bass weight beyond that. Looking for stylistic coherence in Night Slugs (or Hyperdub or Numbers) simply on those terms will fail because the nature of their beats is relatively inconsistent in comparison to, say, jungle or 2-step. The beats on a Night Slugs track are typically somewhere between house and [UK] funky [house], both of which have pretty broad range of drumloop variability, with the latter often incorporating several different and non-UK-standard percussive samples (bongos etc) into the groove. Occasionally there’s a hint of dubstep given by some relation between bass and a halfstep alternation between kick drum and snare at an appropriate bpm. More specifically, you could say that Night Slugs has a bit of a penchant for syncopation (click here if you’re not completely certain what this term means, I’ll be referring to it a lot), which sometimes includes triple rhythms, without straying too far from a 4/4 pulse given by mostly even kick drum. In this it’s just like funky and its antecedents soca, calypso and various other Caribbean styles from which it borrows its beats. So even that’s not exactly a unique stylistic hallmark.
‘The floor’s gone all swervy’: gliding synthsOne of the main elements characterising Night Slugs’s style is not its beats as much as its synthesisers and the way they’re being used. The Night Slugs style can be differentiated from the core of UK funky in that it usually replaces the latter’s longer, untreated, poppy R&B vocals or MCing with electro-flavoured drops, hooks and stabs. UK funky tracks are usually a lot closer to being ‘songs’ than Night Slugs’s are, and this brings the label closer to the historical tendencies of hardcore dance: sampled and edited divas rather than singalong melodies. The use of these more basic waveform synths can conceivably be traced back to the impact of Hyperdub’s new direction in 2008 (Zomby, Ikonika etc), which in turn had a lot to do with grime’s brutal synths (Wiley’s eski strain especially), which seems to have been an influence on Night Slugs artists too.
One of the most distinctive things about these synths and how they’re being used, and something relatively new as a recurring stylistic feature, is how they ‘glide’, also known as to ‘slide’ or to ‘pitchbend’, creating portamentos across often quite wide pitch ranges. This means that instead of pitch moving upwards or downwards in steps as on a piano, it slides in a single unbroken motion. Often the glide is also divided or differentiated into notes separated by silence or distinguishable against lower volumes or filtrations respectively. Taken in isolation, these notes can cheekily be described as microtonal. (In these cases the notes may be divided into steps, but the pitch glide itself is still in an unbroken trajectory). To put it more technically, gliding makes pitch a continuous variable rather than a discrete variable, as it is on a piano. Glide is often used in small ways to add character to melodies, in which case it’s usually called ‘pitchbending’. But recently the gliding effect has regularly been a very prominent aspect, and a great appeal, of a main drop. Some particularly pronounced examples of synth gliding just outside of the Night Slugs camp would be Benga and Coki’s ‘Night’, Scratcha DVA’s immense ‘New World Order’ (below) and in a more subtle way, the little popping loop in Ramadanman’s ‘Glut’ and ‘Work Them’. Two more great examples coming from Night Slugs’s co-founder Bok Bok but not released on the label are ‘Say Stupid Things’ and the goofy and criminally overlooked ‘Citizens Dub’ (below, which features the pretty relevant statement ‘the floor’s gone all swervy n shit’).
While notes of a steady pitch are rendered on the spectrogram as horizontal lines, gliding pitches can clearly been seen swooping up and down. Note that the frequency axis isn’t logarithmic, meaning the distances between pitches in hertz get greater as the scale gets higher, so steady increases in pitch can appear to have a curve of acceleration when in fact they glide at a fixed rate. The steeper the slope of pitch change in time, the more curved the line appears on the spectrogram.
In this spectrogram you can clearly see the downward-gliding synth of ‘New World Order’ and how it’s divided into separate notes.
The term for turning a discrete variable into a continuous variable is dequantisation. Note that this term was often applied to rhythm and timing in the w***y hip hop, dubstep and electronica of yesteryear, when notes were placed outside of a conventionally subdivided rhythmic grid. This time however it’s the variable of pitch that has been dequantised rather than time. In fact in the Night Slugs milieu time usually remains quantised, regular and metronomic (syncopation aside). And you could definitely say that Night Slugs and their allies are part of a broader trend of ‘dequantised dance music’ that includes the music formerly called by the w word. This process of dequantisation needn’t just refer to single variables either, but to structures of multiple variables (together with limits on their values) and musical styles themselves, representing the way that many different styles have blended together into a continuous whole in which much more variety becomes imaginable and possible as producers discover the zones ‘between’ the previously more discrete structures of grouped, established styles.
The thing is, this gliding characteristic in all these drops doesn’t really seem to have made it into the music-critical vocabulary, despite the fact that they’re clearly a stylistic focal point. Track after track is released with these gliding synths in them, a huge number of variations on it as a structural element are demonstrated, and you rarely see commentators referring to anything more specific than something like ‘neon / dayglo synths’. More likely there’ll be references to the pleasures or pains of a reified genre hybridism centred on the beats as the behaviour of a kick drum or the snap of a hi-hat brings on multiple flashbacks, resonating almost inevitably with something in the archives. But there is something more specific going on there in the synths and in the treble range generally. In true transversal fashion, these gliding synth drops have appeared over beats potentially attributable to funky, dubstep, house, grime and more – they cut across styles on those terms and define a new one in the process, becoming a hallmark of it. Now of course gliding synths aren’t exemplified in every track to come out of Night Slugs, much less the ‘interzone’ meta-scene as a whole, but they are a common and overlooked feature of it. Once again, if the theory and perception of UK underground dance music is that it has defining characteristics A, B and C, and it then goes on to have the characteristics C, D and E, the theory and perception will be blinkered, insufficient and confused.
Night Slugs tracks so far are also characterised by their relative lack of small-cell repetitiousness. They’re no more repetitious than a typical UK funky track, and you couldn’t call them ‘minimal’. Some of them are long, sure, but individual loops are rarely repeated for long. The word ‘minimal’ in electronic dance music also refers to the number of elements in a track, and in this sense Night Slugs tracks aren’t very minimal either.
Something else that characterises a Night Slugs track is its production. I know this is a vague thing to say, but in this case it’s to do with the overall effect of the synthesisers, drum machines, samples and mixing. When they’re not sampling acoustic instruments, the beats are often from drum machines or samples of them, often the TR-808 or something similar and like the synths they’re not particularly retro, just less complex. Use of filtration, compression and equalisation in the finish sounds little more than basic, or is well concealed. Night Slugs has a brash, artificial sound, not lo-fi but not hi-tech – painstakingly sculpted studio techno or beat / vocal ‘science’ this isn’t. This isn’t a bad thing at all, the sound is visceral, real and exciting, though it’ll inevitably be youthfully crude and tacky to those with different tastes. Were the tracks to smarten up with posh synthesisers and smoothed frequencies, they would lose what for many fans is a key bit of je ne sais quoi.
VisualsThe unusual and striking artwork surrounding Night Slugs – the logo, the club night posters, the covers – is done by Alex ‘Bok Bok’ Sushon. The logo is an isometric projection, with the lettering made out of blocks coming in two kinds of 3D shape and joined at right angles (except for in the N), which appears in a number of different colour palettes. It’s an interesting formalist game that represents the music’s stridently synthetic qualities and the brutalist structures of its drop material.
The covers of the EPs are the most interesting. They have a specific format: white insert at the top with the title (put in quotation marks, as if through excessive fastidiousness, that become almost ironic) and track-listing in thick sans serif italics, and underneath are the images, rendered in shades of a particular colour matching the Night Slugs logo in the top right corner. The repetition of this recognisable format is akin to the recurring formats of publishers like Penguin, but unlike much of the unified cover design revival of recent years, it’s not a pastiche of anything that appeared in the past (that I know of), nor does it particularly resemble cover designs of the past (in the way that Sacred Bones Records covers somewhat resemble cover designs from the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, for example). Each image is a bizarre architectural fantasy rendered not realistically but in a manner reminiscent of computer-aided design as it might look on much more basic technology. Fittingly, the perspective is basic: NS002 and NS006 are isometrically projected like the Night Slugs logo, while NS001, NS004 and NS007-9 squarely face the front. It all creates the sense that Night Slugs exists in its own world, a virtual space. Each EP is given its own impressive monument shining in the dark, be it an elaborate temple, a space station or an obscenely domineering tower. The design finds a way to be meaningful without really referencing anything in particular and without giving up abstraction, without dialling down an interest in purely formal concerns.
The design surrounding Night Slugs has been likened to that of nineteen-eighties video gaming and the film Tron. But Sushon’s use of basic, anti-realist computer graphics and projections is not necessarily merely a retro thing, a backward-looking, ironic or infantile cult reference. Its formalism, use of colour and mysterious anti-realism has a lot to do with modernism. Had those video game graphics appeared in the nineteen-tens and not in the artistically postmodern eighties, those pixel grids, crude perspectives and limited colour palettes necessitated by the technology might have influenced modernist artists. But in any case, David Bomberg didn’t need to have played Q*bert to have painted this isometric, anti-realist picture (compare with the Night Slugs logo and cover art).
If grids, non-realist perspectives and limited colour palettes (or their equivalent in music, timbre palettes i.e. those basic synths and drum machines) reappear today, why do they have to be put down as postmodern reference rather than modernist / formalist experimentation? Sorry if I keep making this point over and over, but the perception that the latest wave of UK hardcore dance is glutted on references, when it might rather be imagination and invention if viewed differently, is still alive and well. (By the way, I am aware that such a position was weakened by all the video gaming references in Ikonika’s debut album and Joker’s single in homage to Tron, but this still doesn’t invalidate the inherent formalist potential of the basic technology).
As I’ve touched upon above, the imagery of Night Slugs fits well with its music. It’d be interesting to do a study of how music’s packaging influences any mental visualisation of it during or away from listening. In my experience it does, especially when the cover has prominent colours or a degree of abstraction. Sushon’s single-coloured lines and blocks against a black background match the relatively non-complex synth timbres standing out dryly against the surrounding silence in his label’s music. But the effect isn’t so much synaesthetic as what you could call ‘co-aesthetic’ – it informs the visualisation of music through association rather than through much of a positivistic correlation between visual and sonic stimuli, especially when it comes to specific colours.
NS001: Mosca – “Square One” EPNight Slug’s first release was Mosca’s debut. It’s not difficult to see why a mix by Mosca was picked as a casualty of ‘hyperstasis’, Simon Reynolds’s term for the alleged impasse in UK dance music. His music is just like his mixes: rich, omnivorous, maximalist, not at all economical with musical material compared with other producers in the same scene (like Girl Unit or Lil Silva, for example). This is the supposed problem of hyperstasis – too much somehow becomes not enough. Some kind of maximum listening capacity level (which is naturally subjective) is exceeded and the music suffers as a result. Mosca’s relative attention deficit does seem to hinder his ability to produce great hooks and carefully control their repetition through the course of the track in such a way that they become familiar, thus building a huge dancefloor tune (and again, Girl Unit clearly excels at this). But surely this isn’t the only acceptable way to deploy musical material – how boring and cynical would it be if that was the only way producers used their material? Mosca has a different appeal.
Of course, a diagnosis of hyperstasis only works if you impose certain aesthetics limits on what kinds and degrees of change and repetition in the music's elements are perceived or valid, and what kinds aren’t valid or are excessive. These limits can and will be transcended. Whether you feel music is hyperstatic or not depends on what musical elements you’re taking on board and what context they’re put in as you listen. If you’re constantly comparing what you hear with other musical genres you know, then the degree of variety in Mosca's music means that that search will return a lot of hits. In ‘Square One’, for example, the opening syncopated timbale drum suggests Cuban percussion, the subsequent synth horns might suggest dancehall, the beat suggests funky, the monophonic triplets suggests rave in its timbre and Zomby in its triple feel and subdivisive metric shifts, the bass suggests garage evolving into dubstep, vocal samples suggest R&B and a long sample in the middle seems to be of a Jamaican MC. There seems to be a bit of everything, and there’s probably even more in there too.
But can’t there be more to the music than its aggregation of potential stylistic references? Can’t it have a simply formal appeal too, stemming its shapes, colours, effects, variation, the building and release of tension? So don’t listen to the stylistic resonances so much – listen to the music. And it works – despite the fact that you can spot references to almost anything, nothing really feels like it was put there arbitrarily or inappropriately. The track is an exploration of funky’s capacity for syncopation and rhythmic change. The hoover sound-like synth lead begins in a sluggish crotchet triplet that seems to belie the momentum set up by the synth horns before it. Some time after the bass drops, the synth returns much more actively in even quavers, becoming triplet quavers in the final iteration, through which it reaches a higher pitch. The bass is also subjected to rhythmic variation – the first time it drops it has a fairly conventional syncopation, but when it drops the second time at 3:27 the overall contour of the bass remains broadly the same but the rhythm is de-syncopated and the whole structure is moved forward a quaver onto an offbeat, which in a way re-syncopates as a relatively gawky imitation of the funky groove it was previously.
In the earlier days, Night Slugs EPs were filled out with remixes, and this one tacked on no less than five remixes of the title track. ‘Square One’ is a perfectly nice track, but I’m not sure it deserves all that attention – it certainly makes listening to the EP all the way through a little tedious (but doing so is probably not really the point). The remixes generally manage to marshal the restlessness of the original into numbers more appropriate for the dancefloor, but often lose the disorientation and excitement of the original in the process. Roska’s remix seems to respond to the feel of the track rather than its individual elements, reconstructing the syncopated bass using a touch of glide. Julio Bashmore cleverly turns the synth horns into a chromatic figure and sits it on a great funky beat. Greena’s effort is full-on and strange, lacquered in digital noise and squashed inside a thick, compressed mix – not much of the original remains in the drop. L-Vis 1990 uses the synth horns for a housey drop, and apparently noticing the Caribbean feel of the original’s percussion, augments it with a whistle and a pair of congas. Bok Bok provides one of the most interesting remixes, focusing mostly on the synth lead, turning it first into a nervous tic above a decidedly un-funky beat, then letting it panic away in its entirety. One thing nearly all of the remixers seem interested in is the downward-gliding chord at the track’s opening. Downward-gliding – specifically downward directions are the most common, interestingly – drops and motifs have been popular in the scene of which Night Slugs is a part. Weirdly, however, L-Vis 1990 uses it at a steady, unchanging pitch, and from its slight wavering quality it sounds like he’s time-stretched the original to do this.
In the next track, ‘Nike’, Mosca’s restless, maximalist tendencies go further. The ten-minute epic starts of with a square-wave synth over a dubby beat complete with delays. It glides a little as it goes, swaggering and staggering forward and spitting like a robot rapper over a relaxed G-funk groove, in one of the label’s few moments of truly dequantised rhythm. As it continues we briefly hear a jungle break (1:35), before the kick drum wakes up bit by bit, slowly becoming the 4/4 backbone of some kind of dub house at 2:56. At 3:56 a discreet bass kicks in, while barely intelligible vocal samples duke it out over more Jamaican horns. In the sixth minute the horns and synths expand to create a rolling harmony before the breakdown in the middle of the seventh minute. The track is not so much a tight dancefloor gem as a journey through a number of different structures, each smoothly transitioning into the next. The club edit removes the prologue but still stretches to eight minutes and is probably useful to DJs who’d want to go straight to the more housey material.
The best word I can think of to describe Mosca’s music is ‘rhapsodic’. The term ‘rhapsody’ originally referred to epic poetry and describes a long piece of music that visits many different kinds of musical material in a semi-improvisatory manner, with little or no long-term repetition. Famous examples include Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies (used to set the tone of Ken Russell’s mad Liszt biopic Lisztomania, in which Liszt was played by lead singer of The Who Roger Daltry) and (gulp) Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. That connection to the epic maximalism of prog rock is not inappropriate. The word also implies a certain degree of extravagance and emotionality that Mosca doesn’t really aim for, though in a purely formal sense at least the rhapsody format might go some way to understanding Mosca’s exploratory method.
NS002: Egyptrixx – “The Only Way Up” EPAlong with Jam City, Egyptrixx is one of Night Slugs’s more avant-garde producers. Despite hailing from Toronto, Canada, he sounds like a London producer who’s a few steps ahead. His release in March was the moment the label really started baring its teeth. Having played in punk bands before getting into house and techno, perhaps, like Ikonika, his freer, unconventional take has something to do with his coming from a rock background. The jump from rock to pure dance traverses a lot of stylistic territory, and once such a jump is made there’s a greater view of music’s variability and possibilities, like how you see just how much Planet Earth there is out of the window of a plane going from one place to another.
Egyptrixx seems to feel confident about stepping outside of the 4/4 flow of most house and techno. At the beginning of his EP’s title track almost every hit we hear is syncopated, with no regular pulse to refer them back to. Dissonant synth up-beats lead nowhere while murky syncopated synth triads with rhythmically unhelpful delays on them growl beneath. Eventually some further percussion is added and the synth triads move into the treble create a more stable environment, though the triads soon slip back and a noise like air escaping signals an approaching drop. We still haven’t heard anything sounding like a traditional kick drum, let alone one in a steady 4/4. Then the main character enters – a bar-long series of chords ending in an upward glide and reverting back to normal chords every fourth bar.
The bass drops at 1:36, taking on the rhythm of the treble chords. Even though it’s a tuned synth, its static pitch helps it fill the role of the kick drum (which never arrives), setting up an oddly orchestrated funky groove.
The next track, ‘Everybody Bleeding’, is weirder still. Starting with abrasive electronic barks and a 4/4 kick with snare that quickly becomes a full house beat, Egyptrixx seems once again to be introducing a main hook of syncopated synth chords by slowly opening up low-pass filters. But the kick drops out and the sense of anticipation increases exponentially, egged on by a metallic housefly gliding upwards in pitch. A halfstep beat enters, its relative rhythmic slowness dragging us towards the drop inch by inch until it finally arrives at 1:29.
Like the main hook of ‘The Only Way Up’ its bars fall into two halves, but this time the two halves are radically different. To begin with in the first two beats there’s nothing, not even percussion, except for a single harsh tone that obliterates everything else in the mix like a giant foot coming down. In the second two beats it’s countered by a syncopated consequent phrase with glide on it, as if staggering around dazed after being struck by the harsh tone, which battles with that tone throughout the track.
After a while the harsh tone steps out for a bit, leaving the gliding synths in the spotlight.
Ikonika’s remix of ‘The Only Way Up’ is typical of her more recent, funky-oriented 4/4 style. Layers of synth pads and melodic interjections hark back to ‘Yoshimitsu’ from her album, last year’s ‘Contact, Love, Want, Have’, and fit nicely with a new digital beat and the syncopated elements of the original. Remixing the same, Cubic Zirconia (a three piece band from NYC) brings in a tropical percussion palette and an extensive vocal track, which is left out on an instrumental version. Kingdom really makes ‘Everybody Bleeding’ his own in his remix, adding in a downward-gliding bass and his customary soulful fragments held together by punchy production and a tight grip on structure.
Egyptrixx is building a distinctive sound characterised by synths with carefully and adventurously programmed envelopes and glides. His bold approach to alien forms could prove valuable this year as he prepares to release a debut album. This track, which I think I heard will be on that album, in some ways does for late eighties piano house what Salem & Co. do for Southern US rap – slow it down till it becomes dark, monumental and supernatural. Note the tails on the piano notes, pitchbent / gliding in two directions as in ‘Everybody Bleeding’ – we may be hearing a lot more of that technique this year.
NS003: Girl Unit – “I.R.L.” EPThe title track of Girl Unit’s debut was Night Slugs’s first real hit, and became one of the dance tunes of the year. Apparently it was heard in the Whitehall kettle on Day X of the student protests. A reminder that musical adventurousness needn’t come at the expense of dancefloor popularity, I.R.L is both menacing, shrill and mysterious and upfront, simple and danceable. Its main hook contrasts a deep, powerful, borderline-kitsch exclamation on synth cellos as from a film noir or old B-movie soundtrack with a downward-gliding sawtooth screech like blood dripping from the ceiling and down the walls. The track launches straight in with the fake cellos, which are joined by the screeches in a drop a mere sixteen bars later.
On the spectrogram you can clearly see how each time they appear, the continuous downward movement of the synths is sliced into separate chunks. Girl Unit seems to have used a compression effect to do this, which has squeezed the synths away from the intensity of the kick drum and the on-beat percussion hits generally. More specifically, the synths begin on-beat with the kick drum, but are allowed to reach their loudest volume on the offbeat, making them both regular (in that they begin on-beat) and syncopated (in that they’re accented on the offbeat), or halfway between the two.
A passage of secondary material begins at 0:57, a more shadowy area where the percussion steps forward as swathes of filtered noise fly past. These two sets of material alternate with minor variation for five more minutes. It makes the track a little longer than might be necessary for a listener, but naturally it doesn’t have this problem within a DJ set. As I’ve said, Girl Unit is very economical with his material, wringing a lot out of a few choice bars through careful use of repetition and variation, and is the antithesis of Mosca in this respect.
‘Shade on’ begins with a synth harp in a rapid Alberti pattern. Here, rather than a single note or chord gliding, all the separate notes in the broken chord glide up and down as one.
It’s soon joined by an upward gliding drum machine tom-tom. The upward glide of the opening phrase is then echoed by a much thicker set of timbres, showing that that upward-gliding structure is in itself a focus of the track, and not just an ancillary decoration. Almost everything in the track glides upwards in pitch in its own way, most powerfully after the 1:18 drop.
‘Temple Keys’ is a weird, plasticky house number with pinched timbres with strange envelopes and the triplets that Night Slugs is partial to. It sounds like L-Vis 1990 and Egyptrixx had a hand in producing it. Scratcha DVA’s remix of ‘I.R.L’ almost suffocates underneath a combination of syncopated kick and snare(?), but does rhythmically repurpose the screeching synths in an interesting way. The French Fries remix brings the screeching synths to the beginning of the bar and glides them upwards instead of downwards, inverting the original.
The percussion is always first in. The regular electric kick of the title track is joined by wood blocks, congas and an agogo, all syncopated, before a more melodic element, whose notes seemed to be composed of electronically manipulated wood or temple blocks hit with a wooden stick, drives us to the drop. In ‘Perfussion’, detailed hi-hat play is suddenly swamped by syncopated cowbell, kick drum, timbales and wooden drumsticks struck against each other. ‘Against Yaself’ starts with a full snare drum pattern, while ‘Seasons’ does the same with timbales. The snares are back for ‘Pulse vs Flex’, and are joined by an open hi-hat and the echoing sounds of sirens and glass smashing. Lil Silva’s percussion palette is broad, and he uses it to build intricate structures riddled with syncopation that won’t compromise on groove.
But Lil Silva is an electronic musician too, bringing in specially rough synth timbres to get the most out of his brash hooks. He also regularly uses a low-frequency-oscillating flange effect as an unusual but highly effective way of giving his samples a longer-term structure and a cold, processed feel. It can be heard particularly clearly at the start of ‘Golds to Get’. And just when you think Lil Silva was going to be the first Night Slugger not to use some glide on their EP, he brings it in spectacular fashion on the final track. ‘Pulse vs. Flex’ combines Musical Mob’s ‘Pulse X’, a classic of early instrumental grime, with ‘Funky Flex’, an early Lil Silva tune. With its deep, brazen synth noises – both bass and kick drum, or neither – striking at the heart of garage, ‘Pulse X’ (along with early Wiley and Dizzee Rascal) signalled the alien beginnings of grime in 2003: fat, weird synths in stark contrast to the modest and sophisticated sine-wave hiccups of garage. The rapid downward glides in ‘Funky Flex’ arguably owe their existence to that downward-gliding pitch and low-pass filter on ‘Pulse X’s’ big drum, but being at a higher pitch they make a perfect cherry on top of it.
Compare with Lil Silva’s refix:
Despite being by far his most alien tune, ‘Pulse vs. Flex’ is one of Lil Silva’s most popular. It rewinds back to the brave new world of early grime synths, before they were sidelined lest they endanger (conservative assumptions about) chart success, and quite literally builds on that foundation.
NS005: L-Vis 1990 – Forever YouNight Slugs cofounder and formidable DJ L-Vis 1990 had released quite a few tunes before this EP (for some reason the only one whose title isn’t in quotation marks) appeared in July. With its regular 4/4 kick drum, usually relatively mild hooks, linear structures and controlled, balanced production, his sound is closer to conventional synth-based house music than the label’s other artists.
Even if L-Vis 1990 seems to prefer the cool more often than the freaky (the label exists between these two aesthetic goalposts) Forever You’s title track certainly grabs the listener’s attention as well as any other Night Slugs track. Its drop features prominent triplets soaring over the solid ground of the house beat. The hook is four bars long, and in the third bar the synth is very subtly raised in pitch, imbuing the hook with a microtonal frisson, a relative weightlessness of pitch to go with the relative weightlessness of rhythm, like the way you feel yourself being gently pulled upwards as a lift goes downwards. As the hook finishes in its fourth bar, it quickly glides upwards as if to provide an upbeat before looping back.
The next track, ‘Into the Stars’, features a slowly downward-gliding synth, soaked in reverb and passing from the left channel to the right, throughout. With only three kicks in a bar, the house beat has one of its teeth missing and compensates by giving the third one the syncopated twist of funky. Low-pass filters slowly open and close over synths arranged in little isorhythmic structures. Then things get even more housey. ‘Do you Remember’ would approach a full-blown nineteen-eighties house pastiche if it weren’t for the eery synths lurking in the reverb making you look over your shoulder. I guess I’m not in love with classic house enough to find this track appealing – with lots of current producers trying their hands at classic styles like oldskool rave, jungle and even garage, a house nostalgia doesn’t even present much of a technical challenge. As those distinctive acid house TB-303 synth squelches appear, their filters opening up over several bars as per usual, I wonder how necessary this exercise in recreating the past really is when Night Slugs is usually so up for reaching into the future and establishing a sound for the present day.
Forever You is one of the few EPs to feature long, relatively unprocessed vocal tracks, which have pivotal roles in both ‘Forever You’ (vocals provided by Shadz) and ‘Do you Remember’. In the latter, a cornily sexy voice reminisces about the pleasures of house music. Such commentaries – again, talking about the appeals house music and dancing itself – were a common in classic house. So house’s referencing of itself in the past is itself a reference to self-referencing (…not particularly fresh).
NS006: Kingdom – “That Mystic” EPHaving already remixed Egyptrixx for the label, New York’s Kingdom became Night Slugs’s second North American artist with That Mystic in July. It continued in more or less the same vein as his single ‘Mind Reader’ / ‘You’ – lucid, energetic, uptempo house, made monumental with crisp reverb, revolving around R&B samples and melodically driven structures. Without dipping into overt reference or pastiche, the EP really shows the influence of a holistic London sound, as if from Kingdom’s relatively distant NYC vantage point the city’s trinity of UK funky, grime and dubstep appear as a single undifferentiated entity. Kingdom’s knack for crafting a tight, clever dancefloor essential incredibly successfully is rarely surpassed by his labelmates, and made That Mystic one of the releases I listened to most last year.
Kingdom doesn’t seem content to lay all his cards on the table through a conventional drop within the first two minutes of the track, as most others do. His carefully controlled structures are gradually deployed and built up throughout the track. ‘That Mystic’ begins with a human voice pitched down beyond the point of sounding human which is later joined by another voice, this time pitched up to the ‘chipmunk’ level. The pair outline a bare octave, with both voices stepping up to the octave from a streetwise minor seventh (the higher voice more rhythmically active in doing so as if in correspondence to its pitch). (If your head is full of harmonic baggage like mine is, this flattened seventh note might suggest that we’re really in the dominant of a minor home key, awaiting a perfect cadence to ride back home – it never comes, and the anticipation remains throughout). A rapidly trembling synth and vocal flourish ushers in a slim square-wave synth at 0:28, posturing with all the dangerous modality of grime, joined by slow claps, one in each bar. Kingdom is raising the temperature very high, very quickly with all this, and given that a big, insistent kick is already in place we don’t know what sort of drop to expect. It turns out to be an extravagant breakdown with new rhythms and timbres, in which all frequencies are spectacularly swept away.
But nothing is dropped – the track is merely rebooted to the more fundamental level of a solo kick, and everything starts up again, but more quickly this time. A fuller drumloop debuts at 2:09, with rapid little runs on hi-hats. 2:25 sees another breakdown, foregrounding vocal samples and bringing in a dubstep-like beat. But soon we’re back on the march, and then everything slowly drops out, leaving us alone with that mystical low voice. The track uses an unconventional structure to build anticipation over a length of five whole minutes, and is the perfect way to start the EP.
‘Bust Broke’ does the same, but unlike ‘That Mystic’ it does have a clear payoff moment, which is left right until the end. The track has a highly syncopated feel throughout, stemming from the kick and elaborated on by combo of a conga hit on the rim and a snare drum. This groove seems to be mostly percussion, with reverby rave synths marking time every four bars. Then we get the most amazing breakdown, which, as in ‘That Mystic’, feels a bit like a pre-drop structure. Against a buzzing drone that glides downwards every four bars (like a vestige of the previous synths), R&B vocal samples creeping slowly out of a low-pass filter become a soulful chorus – humanity steps into the harsh, percussive, syncopated world, offering warm timbres and regular rhythms.
After a hilariously lo-fi gunshot sound effect extinguishes this soulful interlude, the rave synths return and have developed into a killer hook at 2:54, after nearly three minutes of intense anticipation.
‘Fogs’ returns to the dubstep-beat feel visited in ‘That Mystic’, and uses a Wiley-esque synth pattern intimately woven into the percussion to harmonise what turns out much like a song without words. Again, Kingdom goes for the rawness of open intervals – the tuned drums go up and down an octave, while the vocal sample is based on fifths and fourths and another one of those flattened sevenths. It’s the Wiley-esque pattern that so sweetly flutters down to the minor third via fifths, fourths, a minor seventh and a minor sixth (in that order), moving successively from harsh, bare intervals along a continuum to the more tender intervals. And these intervals really are powerful and robust, like a castle, with the first fifth catapulted in on a glissando. The vocal section is then harmonised by a synth creeping upwards, note by note. Later, the pace is increased when the kick leaves the lumbering dubstep beat and goes four to the floor, which you don't see every day.
‘Pang’ is something a bit weirder. It starts with an eery melody that sounds like it was created from the sound of someone hitting a playground climbing frame with a stick over an uneven beat, which with its one kick and syncopated conga, makes it feel like you’re trying to walk with one leg much longer than the other. A gliding synth moan joins in, and soon some funky percussion brings in a drop. For all its beguiling surrealism, the track never reaches the excitement of the previous tracks because it never uses a 4/4 kick drum (or much kick at all, really), and it’s difficult to make funky percussion work without it.
‘Pang’s’ sibling ‘Seven Chirp’ is a little more relatable, mostly because its latin-like acoustic guitar squashed up against R&B samples is reminiscent of mid to late nineteen-nineties pop. Accordingly, the beat is a little bit more garagy, but the heavy reverb on the background synths jars with the dryness of the guitar and samples in the wrong sort of way, and the vocal samples are too atomised and arrhythmic to get anything dancy going. The slightly more experimental, introspective side of Kingdom revealed on these last two tracks is intriguing, but feels a bit odd sat next to his dancefloor bangers – perhaps this sound will be differentiated into its own strain of his style with more confidence in 2011.
NS007: Velour – “The Velvet Collection”After the force with which most of Night Slugs’s prior releases had hit, it took a little longer for the sweet, summery vibes of The Velvet Collection to grown on me. Originally incognito, Velour turned out to be a tag team of synth-funky pinup Julio Bashmore and intriguing dubstep innovator Hyetal. The combination is a really good one. Bashmore’s artisan funky euphoria, with its bracing synth-pad vistas, certainly complements the synth arrangements Hyetal favours, especially since the latter tends to reject bass weight for intricate crystals of treble pixelation, having apparently brought the innovations of Hyperdub 2008 towards a slicker, more rank-and-file dubstep context.
Like Forever You, The Velvet Collection is more cool than freaky, and ‘Booty Slammer’ is full of character. The lazy little spread chords, each note a pixel, roll into the groove like hundreds and thousands sprinkled into a rich bowl of maple syrup in slow motion (nom). Later a wobbly, gliding sawtooth synth solo staggers in and says something just right. After the pounding of Kingdom’s kick drums, the discretion of Velour’s kicks are refreshing; after Kingdom’s tense melodies eked out phrase by phrase in the booming silence, Velour’s lingering, slightly delayed synths are relaxing.
The slightly sleazy ‘The Scent of Romance’ follows with more of a 4/4 house feel and some mildly disturbing samples of a deep voice describing his love for James Bond and ‘dancing girls’. Little triangle-wave interjections take the place of hi-hats, while syncopated sawtooth minor triads (cf Zomby's One Foot Ahead of the Other) drive things forward. At 3:00 a breakdown unveils some synths climbing upward, each foothold wavering queasily in pitch.
The harp-like glissandos and soaring ninth-reaching hooks in ‘Kick it Till it Breaks’ make it a hidden gem, as do the blue G-funk squeal and upstanding bass interjections. ‘She Wore Velour’s’ cosmic synths are brought down to earth by the mumbly almost-walking bass and treats us to a final couple of those delectable synth solos (they're great, I wonder whether it was Bashmore or Hyetal who did them). Easily overlooked next to the indomitable power of Kingdom, the funky rudeness of Lil Silva, the bizarreness of Egyptrixx or the magnetic extroversion of Girl Unit, Velour’s cruising, big sunglass-wearing grooves nonetheless did a good job of rounding out Night Slugs’s character as a label.
NS008: Girl Unit – “Wut”With his second EP for the label, Girl Unit changed direction. Wut traded I.R.L's gliding hooks and fear for richly orchestrated harmonies and emotional grandeur. The combination of power and soul proved very successful, with the title track here was perhaps Night Slugs’s biggest hit so far. If I had to place it stylistically it seems to have a bit to do with Guido, the semi-forgotten Bristol producer who added the lavish melodic outpourings of a synth orchestra to the dubstep formula, forming part of the ‘Purple’ strain of melodically aware electro dubstep along with Joker and Gemmy. While Guido managed to unfurl spine-tingling harmonic narratives over long periods, Wut does little more than cram a huge show of feeling into small, looping units, which then repeat over and over again. In true Girl Unit style, ‘Wut’ is at least two minutes longer than it probably needed to be, but this isn’t a problem in a DJ set – in fact it doesn’t even need to be rewound, it effectively does that itself.
This is not to say that these units aren’t very cleverly composed and very effective. ‘Wut’s’ appeal lies in the minor harmonies, dominated by the most anguished of triad inversions, the second, constantly creeping upwards towards the minor third of the home key, with a minor sixth mournfully sliding down to the fifth on the percussively emphasised downbeat. The high-pitched vocal samples that enact this are highly effective in themselves, shifting in timbre and fusing with the high starlight synths, their only truly intelligible symbol being the outraged cry of ‘what?’. Had the harmony been major rather than minor, the string-like sawtooth power chords would have been a little more reminiscent of epic nineteen-eighties synth pop, which is why the track bears a passing resemblance to Nicki Minaj’s ‘Blazin’, which pitches up a sample of the minor intro to ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ until it reaches ‘Wut’s’ shrill register.
The next two tracks are the most Guido-like, with strings, triangles, timpani and brass (or is that a big church organ) in ‘Every Time’, though no especially prominent bass. The main drop rests on a minor sixth inverted pedal in the home key, a note that isn’t in the home triad and actually clashes with the fifth across a semitone, so it sounds a bit dissonant. This little bit of pain is really hammered home in the fifth bar when it’s split into insistent quavers, suggesting that the relative dissonance was somewhat deliberate, yet it still doesn’t feel as clear and enticing a freakshow as the horrors of ‘I.R.L.’. With its mix of orchestral hits, spinning synths and harmonic habits, ‘Showstoppa’ could almost have been produced by Guido himself. It would sound at home in a set of strong and sophisticated grime, next to the likes of Terror Danjah.
Wut may turn out to be one of the last hurrahs for dubstep’s halfstep beat. Neither the title track nor the others would’ve felt nearly so monumental without its rhythmically slower gait, but it’s feeling less and less exciting these days in comparison to 4/4, or indeed anything more rhythmically active. While I clearly can see its appeals, I don’t think I can go all the way with the hype that’s surrounded the EP (if I was inclined to blog a long countdown of ‘bests’ in 2010, I wouldn’t put Wut or its title track very near the top, as many have). Its attempt to engineer some big bad anthems feels a bit obvious, maybe even a bit overdriven, and the fact that Night Slugs had built up huge momentum by the time of the EP’s prominence and release may have lead us to trust its quality a bit more than it deserved. Having said this, it is indeed a huge dancefloor tune in the right hands. I was there when this video was filmed, and that moment was every bit as amazing as it looks, a real highlight (just proves you should go and hear all this in clubs rather than an armchair, really).
NS009: Jam City – “Magic Drops”Jam City was behind the clever uptempo refix of the band Endgames’s 1984 slow funk jam ‘Ecstasy’, which was put out on white label 12” vinyl in August by Night Slugs. It was joined by a couple of other worthy tunes, a refix of DJ Deeon’s ‘Let Me Bang’ which added warm gliding sawtooth drones, and some funky raw square bass in ‘Shut the Lights Off (Devil Refix)’. Hopefully these tracks will be on the upcoming Jam City album, because that white label sold out pretty quickly and it’s not on mp3 (I missed out). The Magic Drops EP arrived in December, and like most Night Slugs artists he switched to explore the possibilities of a new style. The shift was dramatic – from raw punky refix mechanic to mayor of surrealist hip-hop wonderland – but the innovation and ingenuity, particularly when it comes to percussion, remained and will hopefully continue to remain into 2011.
The clue to the world of Magic Drops is in the name. ‘Magic’, of course, and ‘drops’, as in ‘drops acid’, which put together sound like some kind of candy or drug lingo. The cover depicts a load of water slides, whose funtime connotations are spookily undermined by those cold, minty colours and apparent night-time setting (as on all Night Slugs covers). The first thing we hear in the title track is a downward glissando on a harp-like e-piano, as if we’d been magicked there with the wave of a wand. Then we notice an odd halfstep beat constructed out of the clunky noises of hydraulic machinery, like the chassis of a pimped-out muscle car bouncing up and down. Little synth pixies mark time as we approach the magic drop. Then a robot butterfly launches into the air. Then someone clears their throat.
The main hook at the drop is a teasingly slow upward glide (yet another hook strongly characterised by a gliding synth, but it’s not like there’s a focused aesthetic direction in UK dance music or anything, right? ;-), which begins practically in semitones before crawling upwards in microtones over two bars and then sliding back down in the last two beats. Its volume swells with each crotchet beat. As if to assert its dominance, it appears in different octaves.
The second half of the track fills out the world harmonically with blissful e-pianos and a synth made to sound like a sunny nineteen-eighties US rock electric guitar.
‘Scene Girl’ begins in a similar manner, with machinic beats and onbeat interjections, but turns into something else. The sound of pornography takes us to the drop – despite this moment of explicitness, the whole EP has a weirdly, vaguely pornographic feel, not in terms of content so much as its fantasy slow-dance halfstep gaze at sleazy synths (I’d like to say that this mood was satirical and subversive rather than celebratory, but it’s a bit close to call). The buzzing bass that follows moves on-beat but reaches maximum volume just after the beat, making it feel beautifully languid. When the treble elements are added, the four-bar loop sounds like a bizarre take on the kind of backing you get in a slower, more sentimental track on a mainstream rap album of recent years.
‘2 Hot’ has a similar but slightly different flavour. The percussion is slightly more conventional (but still not what you’d actually call ‘conventional’), and the ever-resolving bass is both harmonically and timbrally relaxing, even when it’s joined by borderline dissonant pitch-wavering synths hanging down like alien tentacles. Magic Drops finished Night Slugs’s year as its least dancy EP, but the worlds it conjures are detailed, beguiling and lurid – often excessively so, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
NSAS001: Night Slugs Allstars Volume 1Night Slugs’s first CD arrived at the end of the year, and is something of a manifesto for the label. It contained some of the best tracks from the EPs, as well as some remixes and new material. Unbelievably, it begins with yet another version of Mosca’s ‘Square One’, a VIP, which manages to push the track into a tighter structure and adds new elements but offers relatively little. Bok Bok’s remix of ‘I.R.L’ is characteristically bold and strange, incorporating pregnant pauses filled only with the reverberation of a strange upward-gliding miniature cymbal into its drop, and craftily redeploying the elements of the original. L-Vis 1990 and T Williams’s ‘Stand Up’ has a punchy syncopated kick and a bizarre, evolving drop whose timbre changes create rhythm and incorporates a downward-gliding motif halfway through. Bok Bok joins Cubic Zirconia for a dub version of ‘Reclash’ (which the label had earlier released on vinyl), a very complex, constantly developing track with a swiftly gliding bass. Optimum’s unique penchant for broken, blink-and-you-miss-them synth patterns is out in force on ‘Broken Embrace’ (his ‘Crash Riddim’ has graced many Night Slugs DJ sets and mixes with its irresistible parallel semiquavers). Jacques Greene, another newcomer, supplies an accomplished but relatively bland house number that fails to resist the temptation to straight-up pastiche acid house’s squelchy synths for a second time on the label.
Encouragingly since there’ll be albums from them this year, it’s Jam City and Egyptrixx who provide the most interesting material here. Jam City’s ‘Arp Jam’ is dancier than Magic Drops and more 4/4 than the 'Ecstasy' white label, with a funky rhythm arranged onto his typically outré percussion collection. At the lovely drop, the ironclad treble synth twang (like someone rapidly plucking low piano strings) branches out into the bass, and tambourines double the rhythmic pulse. On the fourth beat of every other bar, there’s a little percussive glissando upward, while at the beginning of every other bar there’s a pow (yeah, much of Jam City’s percussion escapes any established technical language) – it’s like a catapult is pulled back and fired in the course of two beats.
Egyptrixx’s ‘Liberation Front’ is a largely characteristic outing for the glide-obsessed Toronto producer, though slightly more minimal, linear and driven than usual. The hook is a single enveloped square-wave pitch, bent downwards as it fades away, which goes through different degrees of overdriving modulation while queasy synth stabs glide downward behind it. Pitch-wavering treble lines soon engage in a ground-to air shootout with the pitch, and after a breakdown and a new drop, the square-wave pitch finds itself with a different gliding structure:
It usually takes a lot for an album to surpass the promise of early singles and EPs in UK underground dance. With Jam City and Egyptrixx albums on the way from Night Slugs following the label’s rise to fame, the stage looks set for the label to become complacent and subside into mediocrity after all that much hype. I hope this won’t happen, and I don’t think it will. Their rise will only continue upward if they cherish and develop what makes their music unusual and unique rather than derivative or retrograde. But it’s difficult to predict what the label will look like a year from now, what Night Slugs Allstars Volume 2 will sound like. It’d be great to see a solo Bok Bok EP as tight and stylistically focused as Wut, The Velvet Collection or Magic Drops, I’m surprised there hasn’t been one already. It’d also be great, not to mention timely, to see a lot more female talent on a label where the number of blokes runs into double figures and women are only represented by the occasional remix or collaboration.
Much of what the Night Slugs artists have done has been to consolidate some of the various new directions emerging in UK dance in the last three years, salvaging the fallout of the 2008-9 impact especially, situate them in a relatively more relatable context, and in the process continue the reaction against the increasingly stale smell of dubstep. But Night Slugs do have something new and interesting to offer with their gliding synths, funky groove explorations and new frontiers in the spirit of dequantisation, and it is something focused and stylistic.
The prominent presence of gliding synths over many different kinds of beat and bpms may not sound like a normal way of building a style. It might sound like I’m misunderstanding how styles work in electronic dance music to say that all these (superficially) different sounding tracks can belong to the same style simply because they have gliding synths, but I would assert that the rules for what kinds of musical elements go towards cohering aesthetic scenes are changing (in fact, they were never really fixed to begin with). To see the unity of a musical style is to see a certain pattern of change and repetition between musical events, whatever musical elements change and whatever musical elements do or don’t repeat.
The Night Slugs artists and their allies immediately outside the label do have an aesthetic focus and do have a characteristic style. It’s not about hybridism, sampling, nostalgia or making references, at least not primarily. It’s about deliberately exploring the sensuous qualities of synth pitch, synth timbre and synth texture at close quarters, especially in the treble range, at the same time as exploring all the kinds of groove that can come out of edgy, syncopated percussion. Formalistically as well as metaphorically, it’s about using the vast and still uncharted potential of the synthesiser and the drum machine to draw new lines and new shapes in musical space.
Big up JE, who alerted me early on to the existence of more of the tracks covered up here, on and off the Night Slugs label, than I can count.