The opening chords of Mount Kimbie’s first release, Maybes, seemed to echo from within a deep sense of serenity. The depth of sound, from the subterranean frequencies to the way they collide against each other in an ocean of reverb, is the main trait that links the duo’s style to the increasingly precarious and indefinable “dubstep” genre, but the clear-eyed serenity is the thing that characterizes their own identity within the scene. The low-end weight of their contemporaries’ recent recordings has expressed nervousness and alienation, with producers like Actress and Burial employing disembodied, mutilated R&B samples that produce a sense of detached, nearly paranoid subjectivity. In their production processes, they stick to laptops and MIDI interfaces instead of actually singing or playing instruments, and they choose to balance the utter artificiality of their technique by inserting little details: tiny glitches and rhythmic imperfections that make the music seem alive in spite of itself. The crucial element in Mount Kimbie’s entrance into the fray isn’t a renunciation of this depth, this artificiality, or this meticulously constructed subjectivity, but an embrace of a more personal involvement in the production and selection of source material. Their debut LP, Crooks and Lovers, is as chopped-up, rhythmically slippery, and video-game-synth-laced as anything else coming out of camps like Hotflush or Hyperdub these days, but the fact that Dominic Maker and Kai Campos have wallpapered their songs with their own singing, guitar playing, and field recordings goes a long way toward freeing dubstep’s sound from its traditional neuroses.
As they made clear in last year’s pair of well-received EPs, Maybes and Sketch on Glass, and as they make clear from the first moments of this album, Mount Kimbie aim to impact the mind rather than the body. From the sonic violence of early dubstep’s trademark sub-bass drops to the arresting high-end assault Skream has made famous, many of the UK’s modern beatsmiths have used the extreme ends of the sound spectrum as weapons. But “Tunnelvision,” Crooks and Lovers’ first track, makes its halting entrance with humble pacifism, setting the stage with a couple acoustic guitar strums and the sound of children laughing. The beat enters a few seconds later, shuffling instead of strutting, pulling the song’s other elements into a strange, lopsided coherence, and it does so suddenly but gently, without any James Blake-esque jaw-dropping “oh shit” moments. That isn’t to say Mount Kimbie trade playfulness for complacency; several of the longer pieces display a nimble and flexible sense of rhythm and atmosphere. “Would Know” features a drum pattern that suddenly doubles in speed halfway through, and “Ode to Bear” makes two radical downshifts, both in rhythm and in tone, its final section being remarkable for the fact that it carries any momentum at all. The duo’s wide range of source material offers other surprises; “Blind Night Errand” seems to be an acid-tinged bass filter knob workout until the addition of moody harmonies in the third act, and “Carbonated” takes over two minutes of its time to build into its sequence of synthesized chords and decimated, out-of-context vocal samples.
Two tracks toward the end serve as the album’s indisputable highlights. “Field” casually ascends through a long section of tiny, filtered loops into an oasis of whistling keyboards and slightly distorted guitar strumming, and “Mayor” makes an explicit display of Mount Kimbie’s points of resemblance to their occasional collaborator James Blake. The duo’s presence on the Hotflush label and their perceived relation to a particular strain of electronic music is as much of an instance of guilt by association as it is a consequence of their salient musical traits. They know James Blake and Scuba, but they aren’t trying to fit into any scene from the outside or to tear any scenes apart from the inside. It is because of these associations and influences that Crooks and Lovers cannot stand entirely on its own as an isolated statement, but it is because of Mount Kimbie’s humble and grounded approach to music production that their music engenders unique senses of enjoyment and respect in the minds of their listeners. Depth doesn’t have to be nauseating, and serenity doesn’t have to be boring.