“We wanted to emphasize that this project is something different for us, and something I think we’re unlikely to repeat.” In a U.K. electronic scene gifted with compilations lately (Hotflush’s Back and 4th, Night Slugs All Stars Volume 1, and Planet Mu’s Bangs & Works are the first that come to mind), Hessle Audio’s decision to go ahead with a double-disc/triple LP compilation of its own may seem like obvious opportunism. Regardless of how long they’ve been sitting on the idea (originally suggested as a way to celebrate the label’s 20th release), Ben UFO acknowledged the risk of this release in a recent Fact interview. The payoff is qualified — this “interesting experiment” feels surprisingly circumspect.
A quick rewind. Hessle Audio has been active in one form or another since 2006, when David Kennedy (Pearson Sound/Ramadanman) moved to Leeds, where Ben UFO (real name Thomson) and housemate Kevin McAuley (Pangaea) were already starting to buy dubstep releases. This move away from drum n’ bass toward the airy nocturne of dubstep would eventually morph into Hessle’s signature sound. Ever the ambassador for techno-friendly future percussion of all stripes, Ricardo Villalobos brought Ramadanman’s “Blimey” to the Fabric masses in early 2008, and things have gained steady momentum since. 116 and Rising captures Hessle at a time when their influence is strong, but the new material maintains the quality rather than raising the bar. It’s no disappointment, but it’s not as ambitious in sound as it is in scope.
The new material hits a groove and sits there complacently. This makes it useful as a mix: Elgato’s “Music (Body Mix)” chimes in quietly as the drums come in, eventually followed by a fluttering melody, light and cloudlike. It moves smoothly into the faster, harsher “Cool Story Bro” by Untold. The highlights of the first disc — Pangaea’s “Run Out” and D1’s “Subzero” in the middle, plus the final three-stretch run from Addison Groove, James Blake and Peverelist — stick out more for what’s going on beyond all the drum machine and pad work. “Run Out” kicks off with a kind of low-level scream loop and repeating synth line before a different vocal loop and drums come in full force. “Subzero” has a quaking bass strong on the dubstep end of things. Addison Groove’s “Fuk Tha 101” takes a strong footwork influence. James Blake’s “Give a Man a Rod” is redone here to remind purists that he’s not entirely abandoned his early work for the lackluster blue-eyed soul he exhibited on his full-length. Peverelist’s “Sun Dance” rings with a single synth line and tambourines before echoing droplets close out the disc.
The rest feels exhaustive in a way that betrays the label’s affinity for garage and drum n’ bass. Joe and the shadowy Randomer are especially assaulting on the ears. The end feeling is satisfying but cold; even the best moments don’t match recent material excluded from the second disc (Peverelist’s “Dance Til the Police Come” easily outshines “Sun Dance” in dynamism, for instance). And to be sure, a dozen of the label’s top-shelf performances beg for more returns on that second disc. The aforementioned “Blimey” is present, as well as Blake’s “Buzzard & Kestrel” and Pangaea’s sultry “Why.” It’s an excellent collection expressing a lot more emotional breadth and vitality than the relatively static first disc, which I guess makes it an appropriate companion.
Kennedy has been vocal in interviews about Hessle not wanting to release something unless they were sure of its merit. Announcements come barely a few weeks before the street dates themselves, and nothing is definitive until the test pressings come back from the plant. They’re slowly drifting away from labels and tracklistings in their mixes in an effort to maintain some mystery. These are all good things from an Internet consumer’s perspective because we know less about what’s coming — we barely have time to get bored of something before it comes out, so often a problem these days.
But these logical business decisions worry me from a different angle: Hessle Audio has earned respect by pushing boundaries, with moving forward, with tweaking the edges of electronics. A conservative collection designed to showcase the label’s evolution suggests the rapid rate of experimentation we’ve been witnessing has already started to slow. What will change with Kennedy’s abandonment of the Ramadanman alias? Is “Dance Til the Police Come” the new normal, an exception rather than a rule? How much further is there left to rise? Maybe it’s for the best that this is a one-off. This compilation asks all the questions one should expect, but I don’t hear any answers.