Dance music has always been fiercely tribalist in nature, but those inclinations seem to be breaking down in the era of EDM—a movement whose very name speaks to its purportedly all-inclusive nature. The Internet has facilitated links between geographically distant scenes and structurally distinct styles, and it has given fans instant access to the whole sweep of dance music’s history. And then there’s the food-court model of the contemporary festival, in which attendees can sample a range of styles with relative ease—sometimes, without so much as wandering from one stage to the next.
The budding career of a 23-year-old producer named Henry Steinway is exemplary of this shift in dance music’s politics. For a time, he was known principally as Clockwork, a maker of brash, energetic electro-house for labels like Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak and Diplo’s Mad Decent. Clockwork fit the profile of an EDM main-stager: he bootlegged Avicii’s “Levels”, dealt in crowd-stoking mashups (Wolfgang Gartner’s “Nuke” with the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”, for instance), and harnessed the usual array of atom-smashing snares, roller-coaster crescendos, and supersonic whoosh.
Around the same time that he first signed to Dim Mak, Steinway began exploring a different sound under the alias RL Grime. Inspired, he has said, by both James Blake and Lex Luger, he set about attempting to connect those worlds with a cat’s-cradle of pitched-up vocals, chiming keys, diamond-cutter snares, and clickety-clackety hi-hats. A 2011 mix sketched the outlines of his adopted terrain: Rustie, Untold, and Joy Orbison on the one hand, and Drake, D’Angelo, and Missy Elliott on the other. Recently, RL Grime’s profile has risen considerably via his interpretation of “trap,” a gruff, swaggering style informed by Southern hip-hop and Dutch hardstyle.
With VOID, his debut album, he’s clearly keen to showcase his versatility. Roughly half of the album forsakes trap in favor of various bass-heavy strains of club music or its home-listening variants. It’s refreshing to see him unbound by genre strictures, but it can seem like he’s trying too hard to please too many people. The opening “Always” features a pitch-shifted Janet Jackson sample over moody minor chords and 2-steppy drum programming that invariably bring to mind Four Tet and Burial; it’s followed by the Boys Noize co-production “Danger”, a taut-electro-techno stormer aimed at Boddika’s sullen corner of the dance floor.
Both tracks sound like attempts to shore up his underground bona fides, but neither are exactly best-in-class productions, which is a problem that plagues the album: RL Grime may have range, but he doesn’t have a terribly original voice. Too many of these feel like items on an imaginary checklist of requirements for any “serious” dance album. Pensive scene-setter? Check. Non-beat-gridded “cosmic” interlude? Check. Ecstatic drum’n’bass roller? Come and get it! Then there’s “Reminder”, Steinway’s contribution to the burgeoning canon of gauzy R&B, complete with guest vocals from How to Dress Well himself. Tom Krell’s falsetto is strained and pitchy, and there are points where it might be confused for an ungenerous parody of Bon Iver. Steinway overcompensates by piling on turgid synths, trap hi-hats, and pitch-shifted echoes of Krell’s voice run through oodles of reverb. It’s a mess.
Steinway sounds far more at home when he’s making trap. Had he stuck to his favored lane, in fact, he could have gotten a potent six-track EP out of VOID. “Core”, with its Middle Eastern reed melody and jump-up vocal refrain, is a veritable earthquake of a tune; it comes on like a .gif of a landslide demolishing a house, over and over—awe-inspiring violence reduced to a few elegant strokes. “Scylla”, with its Koyaanisqatsi-inspired arpeggios and drum’n’bass undercurrents, is busier and maybe even heavier, with horn riffs that could go toe to toe with Hudson Mohawke’s gnarliest anthems.
Given that Steinway is still, apparently, making music as Clockwork—his last single under the alias, “Signals”, came out in July, on Dim Mak, and it sounds like more of a sop to the EDM middle ground than ever—it does seem curious that there’s such a wide gulf between that project and the music showcased on Void. In an electronic-music scene distinguished by its blurred lines, and on an album allegedly meant to celebrate the same, why does he continue to compartmentalize? Discussing how his sets vary from city to city, he told Resident Advisor, “In the UK people may expect different things because they’ve grown up in a different scene and less of the EDM stuff has come through there. I guess I try to tone down the EDM stuff when I’m in Europe.” The comment, like Void itself, sounds like he’s hedging his bets.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1vFZ7My