2011 looks set to be a year for music regaining its sense of space. Not so much music about space-though it’s about time Babylon Zoo’s evergreen raver classic ‘Spaceman’ enjoyed a revival-but artists like James Blake and Jamie Woon, whose silence-flecked sounds, employing swathes of space and breathy pauses, are currently enjoying some time in the critical limelight.
Dubbed ‘microstep’, the genre takes its lead from post-dubstep, which takes the huge sub-bass and pitch-shifted vocals of dubstep, slows the BPM and lays off with the frenetic beats. Pare this down even more, factoring in heavily-effected samples and yearning vocals, and the result is songs revelling in acres of echoing, pulsating space.
The sound owes something to the sparseness of trip-hop and ambient artists like Massive Attack, as well as a nod to the innovative sample and beat work of producers like J Dilla. Low-key, spacious recordings have undergone a resurgence in recent years, beginning with the critical and commercial success of Burial’s landmark Untrue in 2007 and followed by The xx’s triumph at the Mercury Prize. Equally, the sound is finding a home Stateside in the fragmented lo-fi of Gold Panda and Toro Y Moi.
Whether or not microstep represents a creative disavowal of the maximalist production values touted by the Simon Cowell brigade is debatable. Whatever the case, taking the bare bones of a good pop song and adding them to some well-utilised music technology, deftly-deployed programming, drum machines and effects pedals in particular, is only ever going to yield positive results. The silence becomes as important as the notes played and, used well, can transform a song: the quivering tension in ‘Limit To Your Love’ comes out of the spaces Blake leaves in the recording, un-radio friendly gaps that might have been taken out by a lesser producer.
For good or ill, it looks like these artists may be verging on breaking the mainstream. Both Blake and Woon appeared in the BBC’s taste-making Sounds of 2011 shortlist, with the former also coming second in the Brit Awards’ Critics Choice poll. ‘Limit To Your Love’ is also on fairly heavy rotation at Radio 1, and Fearne Cotton has declared herself a fan. But don’t let that put you off. Blake’s self-titled first full-length gets its release next month and is sure to be worth an investment. As Simon & Garfunkel sang way back in 1965, the words of prophets are ‘whispered in the sound of silence’. Or, to put it less enigmatically, go listen.
Here’s a selection of some of the best silence-wielders, both old and new:
1. James Blake, ‘I Only Know (What I Know Now)’
While ‘Limit To Your Love’ will no doubt (and with good reason) be the first port of call for Blake, be sure to listen to this, from last year’s Klavierwerke EP. Hazy piano and bass fade in and out, interspersed with gaping, perfectly-timed pauses. Overlaid are samples of Blake’s own voice, mangled to the point where actual lyrics are almost indistinguishable, intimated rather than heard. Jaggedly, starkly beautiful.
2. Jamie Woon, ‘Night Air’
Less experimental than the Blake track, with Woon’s soulful voice pushed to the front of the mix and a more straightforward verse/chorus structure. Nevertheless, snatches of looped vocal lines fizz in the background and the subtle drums are embellished by carefully layered loping rhythms, constantly moving the song towards a wonderful, almost choral-like, coda.
3. Drake, ‘Fireworks’ [Feat. Alicia Keys] (Deadboy Slo Mo House Edit)
London producer Deadboy exemplifies the way the post-dubstep treatment can be used in a remix. Drake’s Thank Me Later itself was one of last year’s most perfectly balanced albums in terms of space and instrumentation, gifting itself to the remixer. Here Deadboy submerges the subtly-phased piano below a stuttering snare and samples of Drake and Alicia Keys’ vocals, raised by a couple of octaves to something euphoric.
4. Mount Kimbie, ‘Before I Move Off’
Fellow serial remixers, Mount Kimbie lay claim to originating the post-dubstep genre tag and boast Blake as a band member for live performances. This track, from last year’s debut album Crooks and Lovers, gives each element ample room to breathe: the chiming guitar chords that open the track repeat throughout, figured with glitchy computer noise and jittery, scattershot voices. Highly addictive.
5. Dntel, ‘Fear of Corners’
Better known as one half of The Postal Service, alongside Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Los Angeles electronica producer Jimmy Tamborello produces solo work under the unpronounceable pseudonym Dntel. This highlight from 2001’s Life is Full of Possibilities comprises scratchy bits of field recordings and looped bass and drums, finally giving way to haunting synth strings. Criminally overlooked, and repays repeated listening.