“I am listening to the new Hudson Mohawke and almost just got moved to tears. Wow. These are the chords I hear in dreams that I forget when I wake,” hip-hop producer Just Blaze recently tweeted. That’s a big endorsement for Ross Birchard, the 25-year-old from Glasgow (or any young bass artist for that matter). Birchard is no stranger to praise, though: He became the U.K.’s youngest DMC DJ competition finalist at 15, lit up the blogosphere during the nascent U.K. wonky/L.A. beat scene days of ’06 - ’07, and signed to Warp Records in ’09. His debut from that year, Butter, displayed sugar-coated IDM bred with off-kilter R&B rhythms, too shiny and smart to be called dubstep — a bit ADD, but fun nonetheless. Since then, U.K. bass culture seems to have evolved at a break-neck pace: the sounds are becoming harder and harder to classify, while the artists’ referencing has gone deeper and deeper.
Here, Satin Panthers doesn’t quite sound like the contemporary U.K. bass of Night Slugs or Hessle Audio affiliates. The signature chipmunk vocals and effervescent synths from Butter are still prominent, but gone are the guest vocalists and tempi variation (the EP’s range is 135-160bpm). Stylistically, he’s ratcheting-down ideas and sounds that’ve been under his belt for years, only now they sound like the product of a million-dollar mixing board. “All Your Love” is immaculate and huge, chugging along with bouncy ’80s floor toms, ham-fisted piano chords and, of course, those pitched-up R&B yelps. On more minimalist hip hop-rooted songs like “Cbat,” deep sub-bass kicks and neck-snap snares sound great in the cavernous mix. “Thunder Bay” is similar in its dirty south lean — both cuts could give any Top 40 hip hop producer a run for his money.
Satin Panthers is the kind of record that requires either a nice pair of headphones or a club’s soundsystem. The painstaking detail becomes evident — especially on the mind-bending “Thank You” — the closer you listen, while the punishing low end is designed to be felt as much as heard. At SXSW 2010, I caught Hudson Mohawke during the Warp showcase, so I can say first hand that his live set is amazing. Where he loses me is the lack of emotional punch — it’s missing on Butter and yet again on Satin Panthers. His flirtation with R&B seems reduced to fit within a defined aesthetic, not for emotive nuance. I can imagine his labelmates Flying Lotus or Prefuse 73 moving tweeters to tears, maybe, but not Hudson Mohawke. Birchard’s music is euphoric and in your face — if only he could combine his staggering technique with some true grit.