Every cultural movement eventually reaches a peak, a point after which momentum drops and ideas run dry. This usually means that the movement has run its course and most will be content to move on, to let it die out naturally. Yet there will always be die-harders who disagree — who insist that it’s just taken a wrong turn and needs a little time to recover, or that changing circumstances and fickle public opinion have killed it off prematurely. Only one thing then is certain: those intent on soldiering on as if nothing had happened will only appear more tired, repetitious, and anachronistic as time goes on, so anyone wishing to save the movement, to extend its lifespan after that tide has turned, had better be ready to try anything they can to do so.
Such has been the role of Darren White, a.k.a. dBridge, in drum-and-bass. While some of the scene’s key players bailed out for house or dubstep in the early 2000s, and many more stuck blindly to their po-faced jump-up and tech-step, White has worked tirelessly to revitalize the genre. Most importantly, of course, his own productions are consistently inventive, and through his labels — Exit and Autonomic — and some high-profile mix CDs, he’s been able to promote many like-minded artists. He also used the Autonomic podcast series to attract an audience way outside of the usual crowd by mixing up that same drum-and-bass with influences as diverse as My Bloody Valentine, Tangerine Dream, and Stevie Wonder, and he even reaches out to techno-heads with his Velvit moniker by matching the same aesthetic to slower, steadier rhythms.
This try-anything attitude goes a long way to explaining the stylistically scattershot nature of Move Way. Certainly the record’s opening monologue — culminating in a shout of “Move, you bumbaclart!” — can be heard as a rallying cry against stagnation. And although everything here is at drum-and-bass tempo, White approaches each track from wildly different directions.
The title track itself is a stunning update on the current state of drum-and-bass, sounding for all the world like a toughened-up version of Shackleton’s dark psychedelia. With a half-time bass throb and the aforementioned vocal sample providing the only hooks to speak of, interest is maintained by the subtly shifting sounds and flitting percussive accents. “Death of a Drum Machine,” on the other hand, is a throwback to the genre’s past glories: its noir-ish piano chords and big, sampled breakbeat create an atmosphere straight out of such late-90s anthems as Ed Rush & Nico’s “Torque.” Finally, “Plain to See” presents a sort of alternate history, in which drum-and-bass abandoned breakbeats altogether. Here, a spare, Martin Hannet-style drum machine provides the backbone for stiffly melodic synths in a track strangely reminiscent of both early electronica and “purple WOW” dubstep.
Taken together, these three approaches — one new-school, one old-school, and one just totally oddball — could easily come off as mere formal exercises, showcases for where the genre’s at, where it’s come from, and where it could have gone. But what’s remarkable is that they don’t: the individual narratives of tense, oppressive atmospheres; fleet-footed percussion; and surprising release are exciting, evocative, and undoubtedly come straight from White’s heart.
What really allows these tracks to sing is the simple fact that, for the first time perhaps in over a decade, White’s beloved drum-and-bass does not actually need saving. For however many interlinked reasons — the financial crisis, the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, social media, etc. — dubstep’s revisiting of the euphoria/dread of the hardcore continuum struck a chord last decade, and the work done by White and others ensured that drum-and-bass was there to pick up the pieces. The past year or so has seen his former Bad Company bandmate landing quite improbable UK #1s, including an explosion of interest from the weirder end of the spectrum — DJ Rashad, Lee Gamble, and label Blackest Ever Black, to name but a few. The artists listed in the “Others” section above, meanwhile, are all examples of people working inventively within the scene today. The real triumph, then, is how a release as varied, experimental, and heartfelt as Move Way can take its rightful place in a living, breathing genre that the artist himself helped to revive.