Since 2008, Liam McLean’s name has been floated by U.K. scenesters eager to predict bass music’s next breakout star. Like London’s SBTRKT and a couple of his fellow Bristolites, the colorfully named Gemmy and Guido, McLean specializes in a new brand of dubstep that’s more melodic and a lot more danceable (be honest, Burial is cool as fuck, but a hundred think pieces on hipster dance revisionism later and you’d still be hard pressed to convince your average club-goer to stay on the floor for more than 20 seconds of “Archangel”). At the same time, McLean and his compatriots have held the interest of forward-thinking DJs by incorporating maneuvers learned from Dr. Dre, Timbaland, and the Ataris into appealingly heady future-funk—dubbed “post-dubstep” by the bloggerati.
With dance’s snob wing such an important part of his constituency, McLean has managed to take the one risk nearly guaranteed to alienate a large portion of his fanbase. His debut LP, The Vision, is a pretty shameless pop cash-in, one that will be defended as a guilty pleasure in some quarters and entirely dismissed in others, effectively blowing the hipster cred that McLean has gradually accrued in a potentially fruitless bid for some of Katy B’s chart presence. And suddenly his decision to record as Joker starts to make all kinds of sense. But if you can stomach the fact that your banging what is in all likelihood dubstep’s nearest equivalent to LMFAO, The Vision will reward your temporary suspension of good taste with a solid hour of instantly gratifying party jams. If the album disappoints in that it shows Joker retreating from the sound he crafted on fan favorites like “Music (4am)” and “Digidesign,” it at least makes the pretty convincing excuse that he spent the interval mastering a whole spate of complementary styles. “The Vision (Let Me Breathe)” is a hi-tech variation on diva-driven house, with Jessie Ware blowing out her notes like a speed-addled Jennifer Hudson, and “On My Mind” sounds like what might happen if the ever-dilettantish Usher decided to take club music seriously.
It’s nonetheless a disappointment to consider the album The Vision could’ve been were it not for McLean’s bargain-bin cast of collaborators. The rapping on the album is uniformly unmemorable, and it would be hard for McLean to have recruited a more forgettable group of male crooners; would-be Lotharios Silas and William Cartwright will make you long for the personality of a Lloyd or even a Trey Songz. McLean’s guests fare best when not given anything especially challenging to do, as when Jay Wilcox delivers the breezy hook to “Electric Sea,” an anthem for those antisocial urbanites who take refuge in their headphones (“Sometimes I don’t feel like talking,” Wilcox confesses, “so I put my headphones on and I just keep on walking”). The album also contains a number of strong instrumentals, though it’s a bummer to report that the best of the bunch, “Tron,” has been available as a single for over a year.
Even so, the Mario-inspired “Level 6” and the massive-sounding “My Trance Girl” should help McLean’s fans endure the latest phase of his career, as they make the best use of McLean’s progressive streak. Which, disguised as it may be by all manner of candy-coated synths and calculated vocal hooks, is still easily detectable on nearly every track of The Vision. Up to this point, McLean has earned a lot of deserved hype for making experimental dance music that’s actually fun to listen to, and his debut is fully consistent with that mission statement. The only thing he’s really guilty of is failing to acknowledge the distinctions his online backers are so obsessed with drawing: He’s not afraid of indulging in bro-step a la Skrillex, or of cutting a rap banger with a dizzying barrage of FlyLo-styled space funk. Anyone taking such an inclusive approach to dance music is going to transgress the boundaries of good taste at least some of the time, but in this case the joke is on anyone who lets scene politics stand between their body and a killer groove.