It seems strange to call something "post-dubstep" when the original genre's overwhelmingly wobbled subbass, complex syncopated downtempo percussion and characteristically suspenseful bass drops have only been around for about a decade. Nevertheless, it's the best way to describe, in a single word, what Londoner James Blake has produced in his eponymous debut album, which was released on Monday.The 11 songs are, in fact, quite against the grain of the genre's harsh maximal stereotype: Avid dubstep purists, those who crave the filthy intensity of dubstep-proper exclusively, are already quick to discount the release, despite its similarly lurching rhythms with occasionally wonky time signatures. This distinction is crucial to understand: Blake's album certainly is not music for dancing with friends at the club but for listening at home in introspective solitude.
Though Blake's album has the same slow tempo associated with dubstep, the overall mood is more like that of vocal-centric R&B, featuring emotive lyrics imbued with uncompromising honesty. The majority of the tracks' sung words are just one or two lines repeated for the entire track layered on top of itself with different versions fluctuating and recombining, often mangled with digital effects to the point of incomprehensibility and culminating in a cloud of anxious noise before dropping back to its ?minimal elements.
Perhaps the best example of this is "I Never Learnt To Share." Opening with a raw, unadulterated recording of Blake singing, "My brother and my sister don't speak to me, but I don't blame them," a small variety of synths, one strong and organ-like and others filtered and more playful, quiver in the background as layers of self-accompaniment begin to emerge. There is a brief rest with a wistful sustained synth note, then the persistent, ever-minimal percussion is introduced before resuming the morose vocal/synth loop. The tenor and baritone versions of "But I don't blame them" iterate back and forth as the synth anxiously creeps upward in pitch, volume and tempo until it breaks into a haunting plateau of its own, separate from the backing synth, before pulling back into depths of granularly synthesized modulation and ultimately fading out to unmask the consoling relief of the solo backing synth.
Other songs have similar buildups and breakdowns, too. "The Wilhelm Scream" introduces a reverberating sound of a single droplet falling amid relatively crisp instrumentation and lyrics about "falling, falling, falling, falling." The droplet returns in increasing frequency with its massive reverberation which, interestingly, spreads to the other elements of the song, as it all mixes into an atmospheric soup. Pulsating ripples of this ambient ocean build up before the tide recedes and the song strips down to its naked components.
Blake applies most of the digital effects to his soulful singing sparingly, but throughout the album, there is one effect he employs more often than not: AutoTune. But, contrary to his American pop and hip-hop contemporaries who lean on the pitch-correcting software so heavily that their live performances highlight their inability to carry a tune, Blake uses AutoTune not as a safety net to stay in key but rather as a cutting-edge technique to manipulate his vocals in controlled emotive falterings. This is especially obvious if you check out videos online of his intimate live performances. In this way, Blake has managed to subvert the popular tool's tendency to suck the human spirit out of contemporary music.
Another such mainstream technique blamed for disabling today's musical creativity is sampling, and Blake also turns this trope on its head for the better. Though he utilized R&B samples for some of the tracks on his three 2010 EPs, the snippets in his debut album are all recorded by Blake himself - and not from within the sterility of a recording studio, but in the comfort of his bedroom on his MacBook's microphone. This effect is most apparent in is "Give Me My Month," in which Blake's piano and voice are recorded with slight room resonance and birds chirping faintly in the background. This short but sweet refrain ends with the quiet click of Blake switching off ?the recorder.
Blake plays with sound artifacts throughout the album. He samples a microphone-blowing noise in "Unluck" for a consistent, yet off-beat, percussive element that grounds the fluctuating tempo of the main flicking and clicking rhythm. The chopped samples of "Why Don't You Call Me" cut to the decay of a different piano note before proceeding to the next melodic segment. And, more overtly, what at first sounds like an impossible crackle of a quiet cymbal in "I Mind" is unveiled by the trumpeting announcement of a sliding Nintendoesque squarewave to be a hi-pass filtered wall of white noise before the digital noise is resublimated, not to its initial crackle but to a subdued sweeping rhythm foiled by analog tribal drums.
But perhaps the most startling technique Blake uses to contradict the paradigm of popular music is the unexpected silence that pierces through the middle of many of his tracks. In line with the rest of his minimal style, these pauses allow his sounds to breathe as the listener is sucked into the void and is compelled to reflect on what they have just heard. Such introspective gaps are foregrounded in the Feist cover, "Limit To Your Love," a song substantially different from all others on the album in its adherence to a strict structural pop progression. The few seconds of silence between verses here are an emotional purgatory - what are you, the listener, supposed to be feeling right now? Where will song go next? When will it arrive at its destination in the suspense-relieving resolution our ears have been trained to expect?
In a classic humanization of the electronic music listening experience, such resolution is never granted. The listener is left hanging in mid air as the transitional drums simply fade out into the second half of the album. By abolishing the passivity of the listener and emancipating us from the rut of predictable pop, Blake's first full-length feature as a singer-songwriter, electronic composer and post-dubstep producer may not be everyone's cup of tea, but its elegant interweaving of raw, soulful vocals with deft digital engineering come together to create an emotive disruption of the stagnant state of the art.