SBTRKT is undeniably part of the current “future bass” (or whatever) scene, but something’s missing. Labels like Swamp 81 and Hessle Audio purposefully explore the edges, whereas SBTRKT seems content to rep the sound. Not that this is a bad thing, per se; as well as anyone, he connects strains of U.K. rave culture (emphasizing garage and 2-step) into a logical, pleasant, individual style. However, his debut album is a real low-wire act. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting offended or really charged up by any of these tunes.
I don’t mean to be unduly harsh toward music that I actually like quite a bit. It’s just that SBTRKT doesn’t come close to anything like the day-glo swagger of the Night Slugs camp or Oneman’s near-freeform approach. His sound is closer to Young Turks labelmate Jamie xx’s, but even Jamie throws out curveballs like his devilishly simple Adele remix or the steel drum house of “Far Nearer.” SBTRKT also forgoes rude boy attitude, and I think the album suffers from the indie-friendly focus.
Many tracks feature vocals from Sampha, who, as you might expect, is fine, but, again, you probably know what slightly lazy R&B vocals over mutated 2-step sounds like. I’m more intrigued by the self-conscious, ice-cold Drake collaborator The Weeknd. “What You Want” isn’t too far removed from SBTRKT, but where Sampha fills a role, The Weeknd brings a fully formed, confrontational, seedy worldview. Hopefully, he’ll turn Mr. Degrassi into a real creep. Along these lines, I just heard the new Beyonce track “Countdown,” which is so unabashed, inventive and jam-packed with interesting harmonies and electronic textures that it makes me question why I even listen to “underground” dance music.
So, yeah. SBTRKT is a man with great taste, and this album is filled with quality, tasteful music. Acoustic percussion wonderfully blends with the electronics, uptempo tracks like “Ready Set Loop” and “Sanctuary” will sound great in the mix, and the b-boy skwee of “Wildfire” is an anthem. It’s just a bit too nice.