Jabu is nominally a Bristol hip-hop act composed of MC Alex Rendall and producer Amos Childs (who’s also a member of Killing Sound and one half of Zhou). I say “nominally,” because, while utilizing the familiar structures of hip-hop, they operate in a bleak space where genre tags are meaningless at best and totally futile at worst, just like the rest of their comrades in the shapeshifting Young Echo collective. The rather massive group, which features various configurations of Kahn, Neek, Vessel, El Kid, Ishan Sound, Rider Shafique, Manonmars, Ossia, and Jabu, has spent the past few years cultivating a unique sound that draws as much from their hometown’s trip-hop/dubwise history as it does the most forward-thinking of techno. While last summer’s group effort, Nexus, explored how their various rough edges could fit together, the past year has seen them further develop different aliases and sub-groups, which is exactly where this EP fits in.
Compared to a recent Young Echo drop like the heavy FWD-style dubstep of Ishan Sound’s Namkha, Kwaidan sounds rather tame in comparison, but it shares a common skeletal moodiness. Where others may be tempted to fill out a mix with copious amounts of bass or over-compressed reverb, Jabu leave things deviously empty, each drum hit fading like some spectre in the mist. It’s a minimalism that they’ve shown on previous releases, like their debut self-titled EP for Astro:dynamics. However, that release traded in tones that nodded more toward Boards of Canada than Tricky. Over the course of two years, the pastels of that first tape have faded into the various grays we get here. Opener “Untitled” begins with just a hushed, creepy vocal sample before chucking in some screeches at the end. Just like the other two short, weird instrumentals, it’s not “necessary,” but it sets one hell of a stage for the proper songs.
The other major change that happened between releases was the real addition of Rendall’s MCing. While it existed on their debut, it was through a Boomkat-only digital track. Here, despite the presence of multiple guest vocalists, he’s front and center for much of the release. Take “Chamber,” for instance, where his only accompaniment is a beat that sounds something like Forest Swords crossed with Dilla. His flow, often closer to bleary-eyed spoken-word poetry than rapping, works perfectly with the production, though that occasionally means that he fades into the background, more important for the aural value of his voice itself than the lyrical content. He fares better on the dubby “Limousine,” which features fellow MC Rider Shafique as the track’s anchor. His flow painfully twists and turns, and his voice becomes casually menacing as he pencils in the details: “Stole a single book/ For the half a gram slipped between its margins/ Been in darkness/ Been imagining hope/ When it seems tarnished/ By everyday occurrences/ Drowned in a ravine.”
The other two tracks feature soulful female vocals and stretch Jabu’s “hip-hop” classification quite a bit. On “Empty Days,” Rendall goes back and forth with M.S. Harris, as Childs lays a deconstructed trip-hop skank underneath. Guest singer Jasmine takes center stage on standout “Don’t Fall Down,” an eerie reverie of endlessly descending chords. That all three guest vocalists work so well is a testament to Jabu’s (and Young Echo’s) knack for morphing into different forms while still remaining hewed to the same emotions and themes. At only 13 minutes, Kwaidan isn’t the most essential release that the collective has produced (Kahn, Vessel, and Nexus would have to duke it out for that title), but it’s an intriguing development in the MC-centric side of the group. If the recent Killing Sound release is anything to go by, it seems that Childs is only moving further and further into the outré side of production, so perhaps we’ll eventually get to hear the idiosyncratic sonics of these interludes bleed into the full tracks.