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Every time the name Magnetic Man, is written down anywhere, there will always be an afterthought. You’re going to get tired of reading it: dubstep supergroup. In fact, Magnetic Man already were a “dubstep supergroup” when they released their first EP, “The Cyberman” (2009), at the time a conventional variation without special interest of this rocky dubstep sound built around solid bass lines. They were, because the group consisted of the three musketeers from Croydon, Skream, Benga and Artwork –in order of popularity–, looking for a formula to entertain themselves and practise a new sound. What didn’t enter in Magnetic Man’s plans at the time was signing with a major label, designing a live show with LED screens and monumental stage set and becoming, for real this time, an established and superlative parallel project to their own respective careers. In rock, a “supergroup” only comes about when members of famous –and often somewhat over the hill– bands get together to do a short-lived project, only to return to their routine: it’s more like a hiatus or an exchange of favours. But for Magnetic Man this is no longer a whim, but a serious adventure that can lead them further –in popularity, above all- where nobody has gone before on the over-populated and competitive dubstep scene.
There are various elements that constitute the discourse of Skream, Benga and Artwork, none more important than the other, because Magnetic Man is a project that seems simple, yet under the carpet lurks a complexity –or richness– of ideas, that’s the key of this whole adventure. Firstly, there’s the wish to take dubstep “to the next level” (pardon my French), that level being the mainstream: the frontier that separates the small clubs and fans who still buy vinyl from the pop audience and mass clubbing. In dubstep’s climb towards a spot on the charts –something we will be going into shortly–, Magnetic Man are the spearhead: from “Perfect Stranger” –a breakbeat-pop hymn with the well-modulated voice of Katy B– to “Fire” (with Ms. Dynamite making a grand comeback) and smash hit “I Need Air”, what becomes clear is the wish to reach more people and higher spots on the sales charts without compromising the quality of the music. Secondly, as a by-product of the first point, Magnetic Man want their music not to function solely in the clubs, nor do they limit themselves to one particular and pre-established pattern. There are a few pieces that are cut according to the pattern of wobblestep –bass lines that arch like an animal about to attack, breaks hard as granite–, but there are others that have a radio-friendly sound –based on pop, dance and R&B, no less–, others that touch on soundtrack music and others that explore the history of rave culture, a tradition of which Magnetic Man want to write a new paragraph or even chapter.
There is a 90’s breath that gives warmth to a big part of the record. “Boiling Water”, with vocal (and vocoderised) participation by Sam Frank, is based on a jungle break that partly cancels the cheesy inclination of the track, like “Perfect Stranger”, which could be the version with lyrics –and some sublime string pizzicatos– of “Listenin’ To The Records On My Wall”, from Skream’s latest solo album. And “I Need Air”, apart from the progressive touch that makes it such a powerful piece, what it really refers to is the golden age of the open-air raves, when the DJ was anonymous, the chemicals were pure and the public virgin, enthusiastic and without expecting more from the music than continuous excitement. At first sight, Magnetic Man may seems a vehicle for three aces of dubstep to make a buck –and sell out–, but below the surface there is a genuine interest for the past of their tradition, the hardcore continuum that started when house was substituted by broken rhythms back in the days of rave. It’s an interest shared with other dubstep men –from Kode9 to Joy Orbison– and which in the case of Magnetic Man subconsciously takes them to different territories of the past.
It’s in the recent past where we find another point of reference for Magnetic Man: Reprazent, that collective built by Roni Size and his Bristol colleagues –Suv, Krust, Die– and the first drum’n’bass supergroup, taking the sound to the masses back in 1997 –further than other pioneers like A Guy Called Gerald, Goldie or Grooverider had done–, up to the point of taking home the Mercury Prize of that year. There’s a lot of Reprazent in Magnetic Man. There is the iconic figure (which in this case would be Skream) who doesn’t settle for working under certain rules, and expands the style palette: Roni Size enriched his jungle with jazz and soundtracks, and Skream does it with trance (by the way, don’t the initial arpeggios of “Flying Into Tokyo” like Nikolai’s “Ready To Flow”?), pop, soundtracks and even something like witch house, on the startling “The Bug”. Then there is the crew of old friends forming the ensemble, reinforcing the project, and the guest vocalists that help making the hymns. There are various hymns here, in fact –so many and so purposefully that on track is even called “Anthemic”–, there is a desire of intense musicality (the devastating bass under the fantasy strings of “Karma Crazy”) and there are the great number of virtues that cancel out the weak points of the album, of which there are some lukewarm moments – “Ping Pong”, or the unnecessary cross between funky house and rave sirens–, the lack of tension at some points and the moments of uncertainty on which they mistake a powerful sound with a predictable and commercial sound. But these are only minor details on an album that keeps its head held high and puts the new rules of the game on the table. They deserve it. If they get the next Mercury Prize, Magnetic Man will close the circle. If not, it doesn’t matter: nobody can deny the importance of this pivotal album of the future electronic scene. Fundamentalists, steer clear. Javier Blánquez