Dubstep may be nearing a saturation point, but there’s no shortage of bright young artists looking ahead to chart new courses for the subgenre. James Blake, Katy B, and Mount Kimbie have each struck their own idiosyncratic balance between the style’s avant and commercial leanings, admittedly sacrificing some of its distinctiveness, but in doing so proving that dubstep, like trip-hop before it, will be a part of pop music’s DNA long after its hipster cache has declined. Still, it’s SBTRKT (né Aaron Jerome) and the like-minded Joker who give me the most confidence in dubstep’s long-term contribution to dance music. No one squares the circle quite like these up-and-comers: both producers make experimental dubstep music that’s actually fun to listen to and easy to imagine dancing to—provided, that is, you’re prepared for a work out. Rubber-mallet beats and arcade-vintage bleeps jostle over every second of sonic space on SBTRKT, so that even the odd tracks that dare to dip their BPMs below a pulse-pound maintain the manic energy of their more uptempo company.
Most of the vocals on SBTRKT are handled by Sampha, a bass-music vet whose timbre is reminiscent of James Blake’s, albeit with a less impressive range. Sampha was also featured on some of SBTRKT’s early singles, and while the pair hasn’t yet developed the rapport of Missy and Timbaland or M.I.A. and Diplo, their chemistry is undeniable. Tracks like “Trials of the Past” and “Never Never” are elevated by Sampha’s evident emotional investment, to say nothing of the relative ease with which he strings pleasing vocal lines through and around SBTRKT’s kaleidoscopic beats. SBTRKT’s fondness for the asymmetric and the unpredictable would test the agility of any MC (though Drake rises to the occasion on the remix of “Wildfire,” delivering a nimbler verse than I’d have guessed he had in him), making Sampha’s intuitive navigation all the more impressive, and vindicating SBTRKT’s decision to work primarily with one vocalist rather than spinning the guest-singer roulette.
Still, this is ultimately SBTRKT’s show, and he’s not liable to let any of his collaborators—which also include Jessie Ware, Roses Gabor, and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano—upstage him. SBTRKT‘s most pleasant surprise is the gradual revelation of the producer’s cosmopolitan dance-pop sensibility, one rooted in dubstep but immune to the kind of bass-music provincialism which afflicts so many trend-chasing upstarts. “Pharaohs” serves up nü-disco fizz worthy of La Roux, while “Hold On” and “Right Thing to Do” display a more-than-passing familiarity with house and R&B conventions. On the closing instrumental “Go Bang,” SBTRKT even unveils a distinctive take on synth-pop that sounds almost like a dubstep remix of early M83.
It’s certainly impressive to hear SBTRKT rifle through so many styles without sacrificing consistency or distinctiveness. Like any good DJ, he understands that a good setlist is a balancing act between diversity and cohesion. But consistency alone doesn’t make for an exhilarating night at the club, and by far the biggest problem with the album is that SBTRKT didn’t remember to bring any guaranteed crowd-pleasers along. The Yukimi-featuring “Wildfire” is the closest SBTRKT comes to the type of song that would have you grabbing your friends by the arm and dragging them onto the dance floor. Part of the problem is that SBTRKT’s proggy, production-centered aesthetic inclines him to pack choruses with all manner of bloops, thwacks, and squiggles, where he might have created something more memorable by easing up on the theatrics and planting a few more hooks.
As is, SBTRKT proves wildly entertaining while it’s on and fairly easy to forget once it ends. Oddly enough, I’m not sure if SBTRKT would be too displeased with that. This is an album that’s clearly designed with immediacy in mind, from the ever-grinding bass to the generous supply of playful pop flourishes, and its best songs will get bodies moving by night even if they don’t quite stick in the head the next morning. If the tunes occasionally move in one ear and out the other, well, that’s all the more reason to hit repeat and start the party over again.