Though he’s a few hundred miles west of the U.K. club scene, Copenhagen’s Steven Borth has no intention of missing out on dubstep’s next leap forward. Like any aspiring producer, he’s saddled himself with a dramatic moniker and introduced his sound to the Internet with a few strategically chosen remixes. He wooed indie fans by adding peals of churchbell to the xx’s “Islands” without sacrificing the original’s balance of cavernousness and intimacy, and showed he could play against script when he transformed M.I.A.‘s bruising “Steppin’ Up” into something delicate and understated. Those tracks give a pretty good indication of where the first CHLLNGR LP, Haven, is headed, though Borth’s style has grown both richer and more distinctive in the interim. Anyone interested in making atmospheric bass music (particularly the sort that relies on pitch-shifted vocals and churning percussion lines) necessarily contends with Burial’s shadow. Haven bears its influences plainly, but it contains enough new ideas to make it an intriguing step in bass music’s accelerating evolution.
The album’s centerpiece and inarguable highlight is its title track. “Haven” is a noirish blend of dubstep and ambient techno that centers around an indecipherable vocal sample. Borth’s voice sounds both masculine and feminine, ricocheting between deep bass groans and chipmunk highs; there’s something elegant and geometrical about the way that Borth manipulates his voice, one which is less suggestive of dupstep’s well-worn fascination with the ghosts in the radio and ultimately more holistic. Even on tracks that feature guest vocalists, Borth approaches the human voice as one element in a complex collage of sounds. On a couple of gorgeous standouts, “Dark Darkness” (featuring Teachers) and “Dusty” (with Jessica Brown), voices are lampposts on dark city streets, suggesting form and direction for the melancholy tracks, if not quite suffusing them with optimism. This is an album where the human voice frequently serves as a lifeline in dismal conditions, which makes it all the more intriguing that Brown’s vocal line on “Dusty” seems to incorporate one of the verse melodies from “Wonderwall” (I can’t make out what she’s singing, but you can fit “and all the roads we have to walk are winding” over it). Of course, it might be a coincidence, though I’m skeptical about the odds of a well-listened producer with a clear Anglophile streak unwittingly cribbing from Britpop’s national anthem. It’s more likely that Borth’s percussive puzzle boxes reflect his own estimation of pop music’s worth as a polestar in dark hours.
If that sounds heady to you, well, it’s worth knowing outright that much of Haven is only dance music in the most academic sense. Even where the album’s pace quickens (say, on the rapid BPM-ed “At Last”), its beats will often be too airy or too crushed with distortion for all but the most forward-thinking groove-heads. Borth’s m.o. is druggy and cerebral, not playful or sensual, though his tendency toward abstraction does result in some delightfully odd instances of decontextualization. The blaring, cop-siren synths on “Ask For” sound like the type of thing Dre used to blast for Snoop in the early ‘90s, and “Sun Down” is a cryptic R&B banger that occupies the middle ground between Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation” and Mt. Kimbie’s pastoral dubstep. It all adds up to a versatile and often chill-inducing debut, and a welcome introduction to a young producer who seems more interested in inventing new shades of gray than committing to a specific gimmick or micro-scene. At this point, you might not think you need another dubstep record, but I can guarantee you don’t have one that sounds quite like this.