Sharps & flats

DJ Raymond Roker's bleak and claustrophobic "Altered States of Drum & Bass" crushes the warm beats of hip-hop and strangles the gasping voice of house.

By Michelle Goldberg
August 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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As a genre, drum 'n' bass is forever drawn to the dark side. From time to time, a softer, jazzier, more lush mutation will emerge -- LTJ Bukem's soaring ambient jungle, Everything But the Girl's sparkling breakbeat indie pop or Talvin Singh's swirling bhangra collages. Inevitably, though, scene purists react with a sound that escalates the music's original harshness and paranoia.

That's the case with many of the tracks on Raymond Roker's OM compilation "Altered States of Drum & Bass." Billed as "a collection of century-ending breakbeat," the album has a feeling of end-of-time entropy about it -- not because the music isn't innovative, but because it's so bleak and claustrophobic that it borders on nihilism. The warm rhythms of hip-hop have been sped up to a punishing martial stomp and the diva vocals of house are reduced to a few gasping words. Both the titles and the samples suggest war -- included are Freestyle's "The Attack," Breakbeat Era's "Rancid" and Psion's "Airships." The alternating breaks on "The Attack" sound like enemy crafts trading fire; a sneering voice gives battle advice underneath.


"Altered States" is more than just regressively brutal, though -- it's the sound of artists pushing the very limits of what music is. Roker, the founder of electronic music magazine Urb, is the ideal guide through this sinister sonic future. He's chosen experiments in polyrhythm that usually go far beyond the squelching assault of techstep, the furious, relentless, but often one-dimensional subgenre pioneered by Ed Rush. Among the best are DJ Abstract's "Aura 1," in which an eerily descending, distorted drum loop cycles madly over a heart attack of racing snares. Eventually, a pretty synthesizer melody creeps into the mix like a kitten in a war zone, giving the whole thing an odd poignancy.

As "Aura 1" suggests, this music works best when there's a hint of light to contrast with the mechanized gloom. Such elements can be as tiny as the female voice whispering in "Uneasy," the haunting, barely-there jazz strains rippling through Ram Trilogy's "Terminal 1" or the plaintive piano that opens Known Unknown's "Rollers Edit." These brief snatches of beauty break up all the apocalyptic clatter and keep it from becoming monotonous.

The best song on "Altered States" is also the most richly human -- the remix of "Rancid" from Breakbeat Era's brilliant upcoming album, "Ultra Obscene." Featuring the legendary Roni Size, DJ Die and scary chanteuse Lennie Laws, Breakbeat Era makes vocal-driven jungle with singing that mirrors the genre's beats and anxiety. Laws' voice is raw and coiled, with a de-centered, stop-start phrasing to match the uneven, pulsing percussion. Given the fact that electronic music has generally set itself against rock's fetishism of the lead singer, Laws' prominence may seem like a step backward. It doesn't sound that way, though -- her articulation of dread and disquiet makes the music more genuinely frightening. Like all genres rooted in things diabolical, hardcore jungle with its dystopian effects can only go so far before it becomes self-parody. "Altered States" doesn't cross that line, but it goes about as far as it can without becoming inadvertently comic or unlistenable. "Rancid" suggests a way to intensify the tension in a visceral way -- by putting an isolated, desperate person right in the middle of all this tumultuous, shattering chaos.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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