various artists,
Drum n' Bass Vol. 1

(Unitone, 2001)

They call this music "drum n' bass." While it's true that the labels stuck on musical subgenres are often cryptic at best, here's at least one with an appropriate literal meaning. As one might expect, the predominant elements in drum n' bass are rapid and complex patterns composed of percussion elements and bass lines.

What you might not expect from this description are the complexities and subtleties in drum n' bass material, as presented here on Unitone's 2001 release AvantGardism: Drum n' Bass Volume 1. A reissue of half of an early 1990s release on Law & Auder Records, this collection of nine long tracks offers much more than just a stereotype of hyperkinetic thuds and plunks.

Just listening to the first two minutes of the opener, Doppler 20:20's "The Avant-Gardist," underlines this variety. Distorted saxophone riffs, ambient spaciousness, deranged laughter, foreign dialogue and a distant children's nursery rhyme all appear before the rhythm track kicks into serious activity. Occasional samples of world music instrumentation and vocals, along with ambient musical landscapes and slow synthesizers riffs, appear repeatedly across this collection. Indeed, several tracks here sound a bit like new age music over which some Alton Brown of drum programming -- highly educated, somewhat overcaffinated and massively verbose -- has dubbed a week's worth of accumulated low-end sound waves. When those beats fade or haven't yet kicked in, the connections between this genre and new age/ambient music seem quite clear.

Among the more successful tracks here is the technological/Middle Eastern mix of "Dark Fader." Hand drumming, bass riffs and wind instruments (along with a dated-sounding electronic pan effect) form a possible soundtrack for a caravan of cybernetic camels, as they jet across uncharted regions of William Gibson's Neuromancer. "Sea of Chaos" adds interest with vocals samples and snatches of dialogue, hints of lyrical ideas whose narrative feel is increased with sound effects like the radaresque pings. On the other hand, "G'et" by DJ Hustler features inconsequential and repetitive vocal samples, along with percussion that's nice enough but not as interesting as the other material here. The closing track, Pearl's "New Life," collects some indeterminate Eastern string instruments, a few bell tones and an intense sequence of programmed percussion, and then forms these components into a seamless and bravura close for this bracing collection.

There's no doubt that AvantGardism: Drum n' Bass Volume 1 presents some fairly idiosyncratic music. Despite the varied touches, those who may not appreciate the primary dialogue of hyperactive drums and basses could remain uninterested. Also, as someone without vast experience in musical areas like techno, IDM and jungle, I can't judge the historical significance of these tracks for the diehard connoisseur. However, as an interested but inexperienced listener, taking in a collection seemingly aimed toward that niche, I regard AvantGardism: Drum n' Bass Volume 1 as a certain success. It's almost enough to make you run out and pick up a drum machine or two yourself -- and that certainly makes these good beats!

[ by Ken Fasimpaur ]
Rambles: 13 July 2002

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