It runs counter to the prevailing culture of instantaneous backlash for a recently minted genre to hold our attention long enough for us to hear a second or third wave perfect it. Although Danish producer CHLLNGR’s music doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre, its debt to dubstep is more obvious than we’ve come to expect in the amorphous bass-music category. However sophisticated, there’s still the dreaded wobble bass and forlorn R&B vocals. For some listeners, their presence will be reason enough not to give debut album Haven a fair hearing. Bummer for them: it’s an extra fine album of striking, nuanced productions that both work as mood music and stand up to scrutiny.
While it’s tempting to put CHLLNGR up against SBTRKT, orthographic preferences aside, they create pretty different worlds. SBTRKT gets the job done from the top of the mix down, while CHLLNGR seems to start from the bottom. By that I don’t just mean growling bass, but sour synth pads and tiny sounding pings, too — things that create atmosphere, depth and menace. Haven nails mysterious night-time vibes, but also gives you melodic content to chew on, and the interplay between dub and pop is Haven’s most satisfying aspect. Songs like SBTRKT’s “Hold On” and Haven’s “Sun Down” seem comparable on paper; they’re both album cuts that trade off between vocal melodies and instrumental ones to pleasant effect, and doubtless Pandora’s Music Genome would posit some “objective” affinities, too. But it’s clear that CHLLNGR has his aesthetic figured out in a way few producers do, and it’s a pleasure to hear him explore it throughout an entire album.
There’s a studious love for all shades of “bass music” that actually puts CHLLNGR closer to Hyperdub’s feel. Affect-wise, Burial is an obvious reference point, but I don’t find it to be a very convincing one. Where Burial’s music is unyielding and fascinating in its narcotic bleakness, CHLLNGR’s music doesn’t require the same penetration or absorption. That’s not a knock — it just puts him more in league with albums like Kode9 & The Spaceape’s Black Sun and Darkstar’s North. For my money, CHLLNGR does more with post-meltdown soundscapes than the flimsy Black Sun, though, and its traces of melancholy pop promise to age better than North’s. Perhaps its success feels more complete than those albums because it’s less burdened by expectations, but the quality of the album is clearly not accidental.
Haven sticks with you. Of course, if you want to make an impression, it’s not a bad idea to quote Oasis’s “Wonderwall” melody on the final track, as CHLLNGR does on the great “At Last,” leaving listeners to search their memories. But Haven is too fully realized for that to be anything other than an easter egg. Personally, the album works for me because it’s kind of a gloss on intersecting listening practices that also has a distinct identity; the concentration of techno, the emotional lift of pop, the cratering impact of dubstep, and CHLLNGR himself are all there. It follows that the highs are toned down a bit for all those to fit comfortably. But then, the album feels so complete in itself, you don’t really notice.