The tide of post dubstep seems to be turning. As 2013 draws to a close, there’s no denying that the year has seen a clear decrease in amazing new music. In truth, things looked much more grim during the first half of the year, and especially the last months has offered a nice run-up of brilliant releases, but nevertheless: The three previous years constant surge of strangeness and surprise has started to dry up. This realisation is of course making me a bit sad, but I guess it shouldn't be surprising. I've been through at least one – albeit much different – golden age before, and I now know that they never last, so I've been prepared. And, considering that we've already got 3-4 stellar years, and that 2013 is still going to be stellar by any other standard than that of 2010-2012, the poststep era has already delivered so much incredible music that it probably is pretty far-fetched to expect it to go on like that much longer. And even though keeping track of the good stuff has become much easier, there still is a lot of great new stuff to keep track on, it's just not in the same stunning amounts as before, and it’s mostly further developments of the major poststep trends, rather than completely unprecedented new ideas.
The most significant sign of the waning momentum is probably that, even though there actually is just as much new poststep coming out as before, the majority of it is horribly dull and regressive, mostly stuff from the “bass”-department (pointless, polite and painfully tasteful house, really), as well as the awful hybrid of downtempo, synth-pop and dreampop-step (James Blakes lame spawn). There’s so much of this crap clogging up poststeps veins that the records that actually do push forward and continue the future drive of the last three years, doesn't make the impact they ought to. This is particularly clear when looking at EPs: This used to be the frontier where the maddest, strangest and most powerfully forwardthinking stuff crystallised, dedicated and determined to be more than just soundcloud or bandcamp-data, yet still with a freshness and restless vision that too often got slightly diluted when the artists got around to making “proper” albums.
Sure, there’s a ton of new poststep EPs, but they're mostly in the aforementioned house department, and I suppose this means that the EP format to some degree is returning to its traditional role as anonymous club tool containers rather than the exciting mini-LP-as-stylistic-laboratory approach of the last couple of years. For the first time in poststep history, albums are now where things are primarily happening. Hyperdub in particular seems to be taking the lead, having done a Warp and transformed into - mostly - an album label, with a recognisable roster of big poststep players. Which is altogether the trend: The major names, having been around for some time, now increasingly seem to try and build a career around massive, “significant” albums.
Poststeps first real album artist was Burial, but he has, paradoxically, only made EPs for the last six years. Next to him, the biggest name around is Zomby, whose second album, With Love, was probably one of the most anticipated poststep album of 2013. Well, if Slugabeds Time Team wasn't quite the great album it could havebeen because of its clumsy and unnecessary huge-bordering-on-the-bloated-format, that is nothing compared to this double album/triple vinyl monstrosity, packaged in a ridiculously big and impractical gatefold cover that doesn't really look neither impressive nor luxurious, but just takes up a grotesque amount of space on your table or shelf, like a huge lump of unmanageable cardboard covered in oh so stylish black roses.
Now I'm actually quite tolerant of overblown magnum opus albums packed in extravagant boxes, but only when the content is sufficiently ambitious and well-considered to pull it off. Exai was the first Autechre-album I've bought in many years, and more than anything that was because of its bulky proportions, not despite of them. Even though the cover design of that box is deadly dull (a classic Autechre-design you could say), the box format fits like a glove because this is a couple of electronic veterans going all in, giving you so much stuff to get lost in that the album seems like a world in itself – as the best box sets should do. The point is: that is not exactly what Zomby does on With Love. Had he actually delivered an overwhelming treasure trove of riches, perfectly crafted compositions forming a breathtaking whole, or a maze of brilliant new ideas going in all sorts of strange directions, then there'd be some sense in presenting it like some grand statement. However, it's pretty much just a big heap of the usual not-quite-finished and often rather samey tracks in the well-established Zomby-styles.
You could say that that's just how Zomby works – his tracks have always been rough sketches, suddenly cutting of when he didn't feel like doing more with them, and I've nothing against that approach per se, rough and sketchy compositions can be fine and fascinating, and for some producers that might simply be how they do their best stuff and keep it fresh. I can't say whether Zomby's simply incapable of developing simple ideas to more fully rounded compositions, or whether his just too lazy or self satisfied to do so, but it has pretty much always been what he does, and that is not really a problem when his sketches really are fresh and highly original, even when they feel like unfinished doodling. However, if that's what you do, it comes off as pretty ridiculous when you pile up a huge, hardly sorted mess of those unfinished doodlings, wrap it in a big pompous luxury-package like it was a 20-year anniversary-re-release of some canonised “masterwork”, and price it accordingly. Buying such a thing, you'd at least expect the composer to be able to work out how to sustain and develop the potential in a really promising idea, rather than just letting it go round in circles a few times and then cutting it off when it becomes clear that he has to put some effort into bringing it to a conclusion. At the very least you'd expect that the most one-dimensional ideas would be the ones to be cut off after the shortest time, rather than going on far beyond their welcome, while the tracks with the most potential, detail and layers, wouldn't be stopped before you had the chance to fully take them in and appreciate them. And you certainly wouldn't expect a lot of tracks being slightly different takes on the same idea.
I'm well aware that this is how Zomby makes his music, that doesn't prevent him from making amazing tunes (even if it prevents them from being even more amazing), but I sure wish he would work with a format that would fit that modus operandi. A short, sharp and trimmed single-LP with the best tracks from With Love would have been a killer – his best so far and perhaps the album of the year. In its current shape, it seems more like denial, an attempt to hide that what he does is essentially (and brilliantly) unfinished doodling, as if a puffy, extravagant packaging would somehow elevate the tracks to more than that. The effect is the opposite - the samey, unfinished quality sticks out much more than it needed to, had the tracks been placed in more straightforward surroundings actually reflecting the music. And it’s a shame, because there’s no denying that Zomby is still making great music, even when apparently not putting much effort into it, it’s still unique, instantly recognisable as him, and often as ghostly unreal as it’s immediately moving. He’s just making it much harder to appreciate.
On the plus side, this time Zomby for once doesn’t spread out a few tracks, with the playing time of a long EP or short LP, on more sides of vinyl than they in any reasonable way need, as with the Zomby-EP, One Foot Ahead of the Other and Dedication. With Love could easily have been a double rather than a triple, but here it’s Mostly because it’s just too long and contains too many tracks. To get an idea of how a more restrained approach could have worked out, you could compare With Love with Desto’s Emptier Streets, which generally comes off as a better album, even though the tunes on it perhaps aren’t as clearly original or memorable as Zombys. Pretty much working with a singular vision, but also sharpening this vision into a compact, equally singular wholse, Emptier Streets is much more immediately powerful and convincing than self-consciously “big” records like Time Team or With Love, even if the tracks, in themselves, are more unique on those.
Previously, Desto had a slightly more raw and ravey sound, but with Emptier Streets he’s more in the tradition of Distances My Demons and Nosaj Things Drift: Heavy, noisy dancefloor forms (here elements of trap-step and vestiges of bit-step) are weirdly inverted, all movements slowed down as if taking place in a glazed, sub zero ghost world. There’s plenty of bittersweet melodies and weird beats, but they're so submerged in the brittle and unreal overall flow that you hardly notice them at first – everything seems to blur into one long somnambulist nightwalk through a deserted and strangely intangible city. The result is something that almost, in a way, seems to be conceived as a kind of “classic IDM”-style album – a cerebral, atmospheric “alternative” to a cruder popular form – but nevertheless consisting of stylistic ideas and ambiguous structures that would pretty much be inconceivable without the last four years of poststep development. And – as it’s the case with more or less all the best poststep, practically the definition actually - it manages to transform the cruder popular form into odd art without losing its essence, something that “classic IDM” almost never managed to pull off.
Emptier Streets is a strong contestant for album of the year, but you can't completely deny that there's an element of poststep coming full circle to it – after the relentless drive towards the unknown of the last three years (the structural madness and colourful futurism of bitstep, hyper grime, skweee and Rustie-style maximalism), we're back at the end-of-history-hopelessness and dead-city-meditations of Burial, Distance and Nosaj Thing. Not that those elements ever really disappeared as a strong undercurrent in poststep, but now they more or less seem to be back as the central theme – the future as an insubstantial phantom, constantly out of reach and slipping through our fingers, rather than something going on here and now. This is also the case with Waltons debut album Beyond: the sharp and twisted hypergrime that was the best parts of his previous EPs have almost completely disappeared, and instead we get an album of twitchy late night grooves and dislocated vocal fragments – i.e. pretty much the elements that characterized the earliest strain of burialesque poststep. Not that it’s a backward-looking album exactly, there's mostly a strange, inorganic angularity to the grooves that is much more in line with Jam Citys brilliant Classical Curves from last year than with standard funky or retro-garage (despite the generous amount of awful soul samples which the album really could have done without). On its best tracks Beyond is indisputably original and forward-thinking, but the overall feel is nevertheless like a return to the defeatist zombie-futurism of the earliest poststep.
Interestingly, this is to some degree reversed with Aerotropolis, the second album from Ikonika. She seemed like one of the absolute poststep figureheads back in 2011, but since then a lot of the original buzz surrounding her has disappeared, and this is perhaps mirrored in the more “classic” electronic sound of the album, which still goes for the futurist spirit and attitude, but through a music that is nevertheless much less future-sounding than before. This does not mean - as some have suggested - that Aerotropolis is retro music as such: Despite using a very eighties-specific sound palette, it doesn’t really sound at all like the eighties house and freestyle that was allegedly the inspiration. Rather, it’s still very clearly Ikonika, the melodies are pretty much shaped the same weird way as on Contact, Love, Want, Have, they’re just combined with more straightforward beats and less spiralling arcade-sounds. Conceptually, it’s sort of an experiment in counterfactual history, imagining how she could have twisted the raw materials of an earlier era into a different future path, and as such it’s part of a larger trend of “new synth” - electronic music that seems to reject the acid/rave-revolution as the point where everything really got started, and rather see the essence of electronic music as the floating future-worlds of earlier eighties and seventies synth, whether through direct imitation (as with a lot of the “experimental electronics” - bordering the entropic camp - going on right now), or through a complete reimagining of classic synth futurism - a bit like how the new pop-groups tried to resurrect a golden, anti-rockist pop aesthetic of producer-vision and song writing as craft.
The “new synth” approach is present in different parts of poststep and with poststep-related players, such as Fatima al Qadiri, the early Laurie Halo of Hour Logic, and especially Kuedo on Severant, which is perhaps the closest relative to Aerotropolis: Both albums are basically a completely current electronic music masquerading as classic synth-nostalgia rather than the other way round. Where Severant was sort of an amazing world by itself, though, Aerotropolis is less strikingly original, as well as more uneven quality-wise. “Beach Mode” is a horrible attempt to make vocal pop, and tracks like “Mr Cake” and “Eternal Mode” come off as failed experiments with Rustie-ish maximalism, completely lacking the twisted mania that makes Rustie so great. Still, all those tracks are at the beginning of Aerotropolis, and as soon as you get past them, it’s mostly a great album, sometimes even brilliant. Perhaps too classy and polished to be among the absolute frontline this year, but still an odd and fascinating time-out-of-joint-exercise in alternate futurology.
The-Drums Contact could also be seen as belonging in the “new synth” department, yet it manages to reach the ideal of a truly new synth music - a reactivation of a pre-rave future-rush through a completely new and current aesthetic - so smoothly and effortlessly that it basically feels timeless, rather than either “new” or “retro”. It’s all slowly drifting sci fi-soundscapes full of cosmic loneliness and longing, but first and foremost created through endless layers of corroded-yet-ethereal voice manipulations - one of the key elements defining poststeps sound of now. Still, it’s done with such lightness and elegance that it somehow doesn’t feel as futuristic as it is. Contact doesn’t hit you in the face with bizarre sounds and structures, which I guess is why Adam Harper consider it slightly backwards-looking and eighties-sounding, though I can’t find much in it that sounds even remotely like it’s referencing anything from the past, and even when it does, I think it’s mostly superficial - some timbres and effects will eventually appear when you’re orchestrating with vocal samples to the degree that is happening here, but except for the odd isolated shade of a sound here and there, I simply can’t hear how it should be reminiscent of Art of Noise or Depeche Mode in any way. Perhaps Harper is only thinking in production terms, but then the argument becomes really silly - if you’re unable to create something new using older tools and approaches, then a lot of stuff that we’re usually considering groundbreaking would automatically be regressive.
I do agree with Harper that Contact eventually feels a bit more familiar than The-Drum’s previous stuff, but I think the problem is mostly the well known one for albums with this kind of music: It goes on for too long, and becomes too samey. I don’t hear an overall downsizing of futuristic vision compared to the Sense Net-EP (if anything, Heavy Liquid is their real masterpiece in purely futuristic terms), Contact pretty much tries to develop the Sense Net-vision to a larger format, and it mostly succeeds. It’s just that the format would have gained by not being quite as large; it drags on and lose focus towards the end, and especially the vocal driven title track is horribly pedestrian, while the closing “Mantra” is the only time where I think Harper is right about the album sounding like it could have been a eighties sci fi-score - it does sound much like some Vangelis tracks, especially parts of Blade Runner and The City. So, yeah, Contact could have been shaped better, but it’s nevertheless one of the most convincing experiments in envisioning a truly new cosmic sci fi-music I’ve heard so far - so convincing, that it doesn’t even sound like an experiment at all!
The albums from Zomby, Desto, Walton, Ikonika and The-Drum are only a fragment of poststeps album-output his year, and some of the very best ones have come long since I started this piece many months ago, or have been made by much less known artists (well, perhaps not les known than Desto I guess, who I mostly included here for the contrast with Zomby. As so often before I had planned to get this done much earlier - it’s not a 2013 survey, but rather a closer look at records that I think show the shift from EP-oriented experimentalism to a focus on “significant albums”. There’s other albums that would fit this idea in one way or another - DJ Rashads Double Cup as footworks final integration into album oriented poststep, or Om Units massive crossover-exercise Threads - but I never got around to including them, they came too late in the year, and didn’t quite manage to convince me as much as even Ikonika and Walton did, despite their obvious flaws.
It has been tempting to just give up the original idea and turn this piece into a “best-of-postetep-2013” list instead, but then it would most likely have gone completely out of hand, and I’d rather deal with posteps 2013-merits - or lack thereof - until sometime after the year has actually ended. But just if anyone’s looking for tips for the Christmas shopping: the best of 2013 definitely include these: Eprom’s Halflife, En2ak’s 3, Co La’s Moody Coup, Lil’ Jabba’s Scales, Clouds’ USB Island, 96wrld’s Private Language, Ital Tek’s Control, and Eloq’s C’MON. Some are albums, some are EPs, some are perhaps something in between, but all are great. More about that, and about other good stuff, some time next year. Probably.