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Bass Clef - Reeling Skullways

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Artist: Bass Clef

Album: Reeling Skullways

Label: Punch Drunk

Review date: Jul. 5, 2012

There’s a track title on producer Ralph Cumbers’s Reeling Skullways that makes for a swell mission statement: “Hackney - Chicago - Jupiter.” Like a lot of British Bass producers, the Hackney DJ looks for ways to push machines to new territory, but also searches for something earthy in the circuits. The two main stops on his trip out of London are early Chicago house, and the even earlier cosmic investigations of synthesizer pioneers. “Hackney” starts fully analog, with metronome clicks that are dinkier than anything from the Roland beatbox era. The clicks are paired with a steely chord that has a Latin emphasis but sits squarely on the 4/4, like an ironed-out clave rhythm overheard from a Puerto Rican block party a few streets over. Cumbers savors the small sounds for a couple minutes before bringing in a club-scaled beat, turning the robot salsa into a full dance track, eventually fading back to twinkling Moog and sub-bass.

It’s one of the clumsier tracks on Reeling, in that it alternates styles instead of forging a new one. The record is dominated by the sounds of switchboard-operator synths, but it’s not as strictly pre-digital as a project like East London’s Subway. Nor does Cumbers go crazy with the workstation plugins. He uses just enough to let his raw electronics get nudged forward or make them recede in echo, lacing them with contemporary color. The arpeggio in “Suddenly Alone Together” slips between squiggles and smooth Rhodes piano, glowing like both old neon and diode emissions. “Stenaline Metranil Solar Flare” is sparse on the low-end and angelic on high, with interrupted drum samples scaling down the size. The vocal pitch of the leads should sound like a church choir, but the crispness of the beats keep the room sound small, emphasizing artificiality of voice tones, yet making it intimate. There’s a bass riff too, but in such cozy surroundings, the reggae bobble is well disguised. Skullways settled into a sound that’s unstuck in time, and works for both the brain and behind.

The long centerpiece, “A Rail is a Road and a Road is a River,” is just as flowing as its title. With a steady train tempo, quiet Latin figures work their way between the passing powerlines. The irregular rhythms eventually take over the foreground, where funky halts accumulate. They don’t disrupt the trance that’s been chugging away.

Given the name of the project, its surprising how little of the action on Reeling Skullways takes place below the C-clef. Cumber’s earlier productions were aligned with dub, but he’s stepped away from that. As low frequency trembles have made their way into the climate controlled shopping malls of the USA, he’s found new atmosphere to fly in, and it’s refreshing.

By Ben Donnelly

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