Various Artists: Soul Jazz Box of Dub

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Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: dubstep, ambient dub
Others: see tracklist

When Kode 9, a seminal dubstep producer, appeared on the soundtrack to Children of Men, he lent credence to the numerous listeners who had long noted a connection between his musical genre and science-fiction. At last, it seemed, dubstep's uncanny beats, queasy bass frequencies, and post-human whirrs and hisses were yoked to the kind of dystopia they suggested. After half a decade of ferment, dubstep found its narrative counterpart.

With its first compilation of songs by non-defunct artists, Soul Jazz reinforces the dubstep-sci-fi link by calling the music "Future Dub," an appellation lifted from William Gibson's cult-classic Neuromancer. So we'll likely find ourselves tempted to read these twelve anthology-exclusive tracks as snippets of speculative fiction, allegorical nuggets that travel to fantastical worlds in order to hash out real-world problems. And to some extent, this is the case; all of these songs play out as postcolonial nightmares: reggae and UK hardcore dance music, two once vibrant genres that arose within the African diaspora, are stripped to the bone, reduced to mechanical rhythms and wisps of Cronenbergian ambience.

But in the end, Box of Dub simply suggests. This music is rich and evocative enough to stir our imaginations, but it isn't concrete enough to fill in the blanks. No theory or story that we could attach to these pieces plays out perfectly. We're left, then, with some dour pop music and some insightful music-about-music.

King Midas Sound's "Surround Me" is the best of the cuts that fall into the former category. Melancholy synth-rain drips all over the rhythms, and a barely-there vocalist spins a claustrophobic verse, depicting love as engulfment. Think experimental dream-pop rather than dance music: both the instruments' spaced swirl-iness and the lyric's paranoid interiority are of a piece with A.R. Kane's most un-tethered work. And while we're talking proto-post-rock, Skream's "Sub Island," a tune rife with Future Days-like keyboard, deserves mention.

And the music-about-music? Well, a great deal of it works better as argument than poetry. Digital Mystikz' "Guilty" might be a commentary on futurism's depreciated cultural currency: for the most part, it consists only of a plodding drum machine track. We've tried making "music of the future" for the last half-century, and now we're living in a world on the brink of collapse, with nary a sonic innovation left to make. Better to give up on forging ahead and just leave music in its most fundamental form, as a pulse. Intriguing idea, but outside of a sweaty club, it won't go far in catching your ear.

Leave it to Burial to offer both the best aesthetic argument and the best song. Mutant strains of UK garage -- chipmunk'd diva wails, backwards 2-step beats -- flitter through the background of "Unite," while a sparsely plinked Rhodes piano pushes through the spectral din and energizes the song. "Unite" witnesses the death of a high-life scene and captures the promise of a new, more spiritually grounded movement. It's both comedown and rejuvenation. It's a celebration of the gap, the space brimming with potential, that follows dissolution. In music scenes, yes, but in life, too.

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