Thursday, 1 March 2012

Review: Lm1 - Redshift

Lm1 - Redshift
Lm1 is the owner of drum 'n bass label Offworld Recordings, who I've covered a couple of times already on this blog. I've said previously that Offworld is one of my favourite labels, and Lm1 is one of my very favourite producers of the moment. In fact, in terms of dancefloor producers, he's probably right up there at the top. Lm1's flavour of drum 'n bass is most simply described as "atmospheric drum 'n bass" (or, erroneously, as liquid) but this is a much newer sound than the classic atmospheric of mid-90s heroes like LTJ Bukem and Omni Trio. Where as the majority of classic atmospheric was powered by chopped up breaks and sub-bass pulse, over which ambient pads and loops swirled, Lm1's sound is more akin to the propulsive tech-step sound that came later, with rapid, reptitive basslines and trancey topline melodies. Lm1 didn't invent this sound - it owes as much to names like Electrosoul System, Modemellow and Future Engineers - but he's taken the sound to a new level with his own work.

So, if not atmospheric, what do we call this? I've heard the word "techmospheric" bandied around by certain online commentators, and as terrible and un-catchy as that moniker is, it actually describes the music fairly well: a meeting point of tech-step and atmospheric. Given that both of these sub-genres have been around since the mid-90s, it's slightly odd that the techmospheric movement is a fairly new one, only five years old at most, and still a very niche sound.

The reason for this lies mainly in the ongoing ideological warfare within the drum 'n bass scene. Around 1997, atmospheric and tech-step were the two biggest movements in drum 'n bass, but the two scenes endured a fierce rivalry: atmospheric fans frequently painted their style as "intelligent drum 'n bass" and looked down snobbily on tech-step as ruffneck music for the unwashed masses, while tech-step took a similarly dismissive attitude towards atmospheric, which was portrayed as lightweight wallpaper muzak that diluted the breakbeat fury of the true drum 'n bass sound into uninteresting coffee table fodder. This was class warfare as well as musical differences, representing the tribal divisions of the London music scene.

Both sides had their merit - too much chilled and melodic drum 'n bass assumed a conservative trad-music stance that advocated live instrumental virtuosity and old school song-writig as "proper" music, the result being a whole lot of noodly, pseudo-jazzy material evoked unpleasant comparisons with Kenny G. Meanwhile, tech-step grew into neurofunk and became ever louder, darker and more unpleasant until it alienated almost everyone except the most militant of angry young males. This polarisation of the scene into loud/aggressive and quiet/coffee table lead to drum 'n bass falling into a deep malaise in the early '00s, both directions becoming so clich├ęd and uninteresting that the original excitement of the jungle explosion completely fizzled out and the genre was abandoned to the purists and scenesters.

Of course, drum 'n bass has enjoyed a massive revival in the last half-decade, helped mainly by Pendulum's cross-over exploits and the fresh influx of ideas they brought with them. DJ Fresh recently had the UK's first ever #1 drum 'n bass hit, some 20 years after the first "jungle techno" mutations. Now, drum 'n bass has proliferated far beyond its original London petri dish, and producers who have no idea about the original '90s squabbles have been free to combine ideas that were once seen as antithetical.

The great thing about "techmospheric" is that it neatly avoids the excesses of both genres - it's neither unapproachably noisy nor insipidly respectable. Lm1 (remember him?) has also been open about his influence from the trance and progressive scene, which really shows. Many of his tracks sound like late '90s progressive trance records transposed onto drum 'n bass beats and sped up to 175bpm, and all produced with beautiful clarity and detail. His music is spacey, enveloping and deliciously melodic.

Redshift is Lm1's debut album and was actually released on my birthday. With a fresh and winning musical signature and a consistently excellent track record, Lm1 was never going to make a bad album. The question was merely whether he could apply his sound to a full-length album with the best results. And the answer is a resounding yes.

Red Shift is structured slightly unusually, as a triptych of distinctive sections. It begins with a few fairly standard atmospheric tracks, resplendent with spacey atmospherics but with fairly low-energy bottom ends. The title track makes for a neatly low-key opener, and Esuna is an early highlight, with a simply beautiful operatic female vocal. After this introductory section, Lm1 actually drops it down a notch, halving the rhythms and the tempo into minimal/Autonomic territory, even throwing in a spot of dubstep on Cold Blue. This mid-section of the album shows Lm1 is bang up to date with the trendiest sounds in the drum 'n bass scene, and his cinematic outer space trappings go perfectly with the languid pace of minimal drum 'n bass. The final third of the album cuts loose into classic up-tempo Lm1 material. Closing track Destiny in particular is a brilliant example of what I would, perhaps naffly, call a "tunnel track", in that its relentless forward momentum and tightly controlled sound space brings to mind hurtling through a tunnel in some high-speed starfighter. This kind of propulsive sound is rarely heard on a drum 'n bass track, more suited to the driving forward rhythms of a trance or techno record, and Lm1 is adept at it.

The slightly unusual structuring of the album actually works really well. Conventionally, you'd expect the most downtempo material to go first, with a linear build up to the pumping dancefloor fare. That would probably have worked fine, but it's a very common and safe approach for producers who want to transfer a typical dancefloor set onto an album. Dropping the energy midway through provides more contrast of energy levels, and consequently a more dynamic and interesting listening experience. It's a clever move, and exactly the kind of tactic I usually moan at producers for not thinking about. The minimal stuff is also very impressive, and a side of Lm1 we haven't heard before.

Altogether, this is near-enough a perfect debut album, one I'll still be listening to in years to come.

Genre: Drum 'n bass
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

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