Pinch: Underwater Dancehall

Dubstep can be saved from ossification so long as artists like Burial, Skream, Shackleton, Kode 9, and Pinch keep emerging from the shadows. Pinch (aka Tectonic Recordings head Rob Ellis) twists the genre into arresting and unfamiliar shapes on his epic debut collection, Underwater Dancehall, a two-disc opus that features vocalists on the first album and then strips them away on the second for those who like their instrumental tracks clean. The first disc in particular stretches the genre's boundaries by injecting it with soul and funk.

Ellis drops a few instrumentals in amongst the radical vocal cuts on disc one. Formerly known as “Qawaali,” the opener, “Brighter Day,” gets an irrepressibly funky treatment by spreading the dizzying vocal acrobatics of New York MC Juakali over its hypnotic groove. His multi-tracked attack sends the track spinning into an entirely different dimension, and the effect is mesmerizing (he does something similar to “Gangstaz” and also lends his gruff growl to “Trauma”). And, just when you're recovering from that, Punch spills Yolanda's massive soul voice over the pummeling skank of “Get Up.” Rudey Lee later lays an emotive, melancholic vocal over the shimmering soul of “One Blood, One Source,” while Indi Kaur's breathy presence gives “Angels In The Rain” an Eastern-flavoured dreaminess. The marriage of Yolanda's soulful wail and the brooding bass wobble in “Battered” doesn't feel like an entirely natural blend but the effect remains gripping nonetheless. As if wanting to reassure us that Pinch hasn't abandoned the genre in its fundamental form, “Airlock” lands in familiar brooding territory with Ellis borrowing a note from Burial's percussive playbook and upping the spacious dub ante. The disc ends on a strong note with “Lazarus,” a spacey fusion of hallucinatory dub flourishes and shuffle rhythms.

Naturally, the second disc affords one a less crowded view of the material. Stripped of the vocals, tracks like “Brighter Day” and “Get Up” are less intense, which allows their subtleties to be appreciated a bit more easily, and wobbly tunes like “One Blood, One Source” and “Gangstaz” typically revert to their dubstep essence too. The instrumentals disc ultimately appeals less, not because the quality level drops (it doesn't) but simply because the vocal treatments add such a fresh dimension to the genre. The second disc, on the other hand, is certainly the dubbier of the two, which may tip the balance in its favour for some listeners. Regardless of one's preference, Ellis deserves praise for following last year's superb Tectonic Plates compilation and the early 2007 Cyrus release From the Shadows with his innovative Pinch project.

January 2008