Ulterior Motive: The Fourth Wall

The Fourth Wall, the debut long-player from Bournemouth-based drum'n'bass duo James Davidson and Greg Hepworth under the Ulterior Motive name, opens on a high with “Stay,” a thunderous and dramatic affair that's elevated dramatically by the vocal performance of James Sunderland. Though the track begins in a rather brooding manner, the music immediately rises with the advent of the singer's soulful voice and then kicks into gear at the 1:30 mark when the light-speed groove comes roaring in. Though there are moments when Sunderland's delivery calls Robert Owens to mind, the vocal is undeniably powerful, and the track makes a strong case on behalf of Ulterior Motive as arrangers, composers, and beatsmithers.

The obvious problem with opening at such a high level is that what follows will likely fall short by comparison. And, truth be told, none of the thirteen tracks that follows is as strong as the opener. Still, there's no shortage of quality cuts on the release, even if it is overlong at seventy-five minutes (late-album cuts such as “The Rattler” and “Longshot” could have been omitted without doing significant damage to the release). Buoyed by an irrepressible jump, “Sideways” is Ulterior Motive at its neck-snapping best, and the cut even nods in Roni Size's direction by weaving a vocal hiccup similar to the one in “New Forms” into its infectious, light-footed swing.

Like “Stay,” “Keep It Moving” speaks highly on behalf of Davidson and Hepworth as ultra-skilled beatsmithers, though the breaks in this case are even more lethal. The cut-throat pulse driving “Edges” likewise hits hard, especially when the bulldozing beats are accompanied by a hornet's nest of bass lines. Hard-hitting in a different way is the grime-laden closer “Chapters,” which features punchy MC turns from Meyhem Lauren and Brotherman. In stark contrast, the sultry penultimate track, “You Must See,” shows that Ulterior Motive can be atmospheric when the mood strikes, and Sunderland also returns, this time on the tribal beat-powered “Muted,” a less ferocious cut than “Stay” but one nevertheless enhanced by his smooth croon.

If there's a weakness to the album, it's that The Fourth Wall sometimes feels overly populist in its approach and content. Replete with pitch-shifted female vocalizing, “Tape Pack,” for example, is the sound of Ulterior Motive fashioning a furious rave anthem that's undeniably dynamic yet still uncomfortably close to being drum'n'bass of a mainstream, even cliched kind. Of course, as a concept “The Fourth Wall” is something with which theatre people are well-acquainted, the convention being that the barrier separating the audience and the onstage actors isn't collapsed by an open acknowledgement of the pretence involved, specifically that the actors affect unawareness of the audience's presence. One presumes in Ulterior Motive's case that the album title is intended to refer to the duo's desire to bridge the distance between creator and listener as much as possible. Certainly the album's occasionally populist feel would seem to be in line with this way of thinking.

November 2014