As poster boys go, Jim “Om Unit” Coles is a fairly humble one. No cult of personality or mysterious anonymity, no great claims or gimmicks. His music is not especially innovative, nor even that distinctive — in his own words, his aim has been “to make beats that were on a par with what I was listening to” — and yet in certain circles, this debut album Threads was among the most eagerly awaited of the year.
Coles’ approach is that of a craftsman, relying on the old-fashioned attributes of quality and sincerity, but it seems the expectations now being pinned on him go a little further. Given his past life as hip-hop producer 2tall, the footwork experiments of his Philip D. Kick alias, and the drum & bass, dubstep, and house of Om Unit, his music is seen as representative of a multifarious but fully functioning scene. Perhaps the hope for Threads — and note that well-chosen title — is that it might bring together the disparate strands of dance music, solidifying the post-dubstep landscape with something like a definitive statement.
That Threads comes close to fulfilling those expectations is thanks firstly to Coles’ openness. Where other producers may just pay lip service to various styles via a few choice samples and interludes, Coles displays them with space, patience, and respect. This is most evident in the guest spots, as he gives up whole tracks to accompany the tense, serious rap of Young Echo’s MC Jabu and the meditative spoken word of performance poet Charlie Dark. But it’s all over the instrumental tracks, too, making the whole thing so varied and illustrative that it’s tempting to use the old cliché, “if you only buy one dance album this year…”
Equally important, of course, is the way the threads are stitched together, and Coles’ skillful, uniform production and ear for subtle fusions keep it from sounding like a hodgepodge or compilation. The blends of styles on some tracks are hardly revelatory, usually consisting of little more than a change in tempo or sound palette — “Folding Shadows” imbues swinging house with the space and weight of dubstep, for example, and “Nagual” matches wobble bass with slowed-down breakbeats — but they are a whole lot of fun and add up to create a coherent sound across the album.
Where Threads falls down slightly is in its concessions to accessibility or listenability. Dance music translates with notorious difficulty to the album format, but in some of his decisions here, Coles seems overly cautious. Whether for fear of boring his listeners or simply in order to cram in more ideas, he allows none of these tracks to run past the five-minute mark, and it rather kills the vibe when both “Reverse Logic” and “Corridor 2013” end, still with plenty of wind in their sails, at 5:00 on the dot. He also seems to shy away from harder sounds in favor of atmosphere and melody, again a shame when you consider that his most impressive work thus far, this year’s Sleepwalkers EP on Metalheadz, was also his nastiest. When he does eventually let rip with a fast breakbeat on “Governer’s Bay,” it is a highlight of the LP, and I would happily trade a couple more of those tracks for the schmaltzier “Healing Rain” or “The Silence.”
These are small gripes, though, and while Threads might not be quite as exciting as it could have been, it is still a solid, loveable record from an exceptionally talented producer. As a showcase for what’s great in the UK dance scene — the rampant multiculturalism, the willingness to collaborate, to cross genre boundaries, to wear your heart on your sleeve and mix seriousness with euphoria — it is also one that the community can comfortably hold up as exemplary.