Bristol’s Tectonic imprint further expands its tentacles beyond the confines of dubstep’s increasingly claustrophobic populist boundaries with an album from Atlanta-based Distal, who first debuted on the label last year with the rather in your face “Angry Acid” 12”. Now, when you think of forward thinking, boundary breaking and just plain exciting dance music Atlanta isn’t necessarily the first place you look to. Banging hip hop beats yes, but not the kind of dance music science displayed on “Civilisation”.
Let’s make one thing clear from the off, “Civisilation” isn’t a dubstep album. Neither is it a footwork/juke album. Or any other specific [insert genre name] album. If a term is necessary then I’ll settle for dance music, and even then - like most umbrella terms - it fails more than it works. “Civilisation” is perhaps more like a geographical buffet of various dance music genres and templates – techno, house, juke, dubstep, hip hop – at which Distal picks and mixes. The underlying common element is a healthy side of sub action and a predilection for banging 808s, which as someone said to me recently are like the Mexican food of dance music. I might be paraphrasing a fair bit there but that’s not important, everyone likes a bit of Mexican food once in a while. Like any self-respecting chef, Distal infuses his recipes with the right amount of each ingredient rather than killing your palette with too much of a good thing.
The next thing that needs to be made clear is that “Civilisation” is a lot of fun. Distal’s pick and mix approach over the album’s 13 tracks means that you never quite manage to get tired of one style interpretation as he swiftly moves onto the next, then comes back to a certain template or idea a few tracks later, and before you know it the whole thing’s over and you’re left feeling like pressing play again is the only right thing to do.
As the opener for second track “Feed Me” puts it: people in the south have a way of doing things. And based on the content of “Civilisation”, that way seems to involve totally twisting the listener’s expectations upside down. “Feed Me” is dirty south bounce - chopped and screwed and laced with a melody that pitches up and down in a drunken swagger. So far so deliriously good. “Preach On Hustle” does the aforementioned Mexican food thing with aplomb, complete with chopped rap vocals and a tension/release game of hide and seek that is quite irresistible; especially when the track falls into chill out mode half way through where you’d expect the drop to be. “Around The Fire” injects some dirty technoid vibes into the brain, though it’s the follower “Venom” that steals the show for me. First heard on Pinch’s Fabric mix from January, “Venom” is a filthy piece of dancefloor paranoia, a brooding tech roller that lurches along at a speed that feels wrong to the brain and yet oh so right to the body. It’s somewhere between techno and dubstep, in a territory of its own. “Rattlesnake” manages to combine a stripped down, pulsating riddim with obnoxious bass-line manipulations that remind me of The Bug at his finest and most angry. If rappers out there were actually paying attention to this they’d jump on this riddim before I’d even finished the sentence. “Gorilla” slows the mood back down as you enter the album’s last run, with Distal dragging the bass frequencies into the mud, in what sounds like a twisted version of a horror movie theme tune for sedated dancefloors. “Anti-Cool” displays yet more of Distal’s savviness, starting off as what seems like a fairly straightforward juke meets dubstep riddim, before slowly evolving and switching half way through into an eyes-down skanker. The way the switch happens is so effortless, I actually caught myself checking it was the same track just to be sure.
In terms of artistic statement, Distal’s debut album is up there among the best. The buffet approach can be a bit of a put off at first, and I’ll admit it took me a good few listens before the whole thing really clicked, yet it betrays a wealth of sonic explorations and production savoir faire that you really shouldn’t miss out on. The order of the tracklist also plays a part in keeping the album coherent and has obviously been carefully thought out as the energy is kept neatly even throughout, oscillating between the broodier numbers and the various dancefloor interpretations the Atlanta producer indulges in. Definitely a strong contender for top three in the ‘what the fuck do you call it’ albums of the year category and further proof that genre blurring in dance music is in a healthy position right now, capable of impacting the listener in a long player format just as it does in 12”s. Whichever civilisation ends up rediscovering this in the future is going to be in for a treat.