While 2-step garage was dominating U.K. clubs and charts around the turn of the century, few in America were any the wiser. No surprise, really: Wildly inventive mutations in British dance music have generally gone without much stateside recognition. An update of more soulful house and disco, 2-step in turn birthed dubstep's ricochet beats and bass-heavy sound, its producers toiling on the periphery of U.K. clubland as most of the media's attention focused on grime's rubber-tongued MCs and their supposed homegrown answer to U.S. hip-hop dominance. But that spotlight has shifted as of late, with a host of newer musicians taking dubstep's basic palette into a territory of dark nuance and keenly plotted emotional resonance.
Perhaps the most promising of this recent crop is London's Burial, a shadowy producer whose self-titled full-length is as poignantly forceful as it is rhythmically compelling. Taut though his kicks and snare punches may be, the album's real impact comes from his ability to summon brooding images of darkened city streets and grim South London neighborhoods through bone-dry synth swells and ghostly disembodied vocal samples. A genuine sense of dread and decay lurks around Burial's every corner.
Amid a steady hum of static and crackles, shortwave radio transmissions fire off like solar flares while clipped vocal laments dig deep into the beats. Throughout tracks like the propulsive "You Hurt Me" and the winsome "Broken Home," Burial weaves desiccated layers of voice and gray-scale keyboards through faint hiss and knife-sharpened high-hats. Burial is starkly immediate, pulled sharply from the dance floor. In charting a nervous, late-night journey through blackened, rain-soaked alleyways, Burial imprints a feeling of loss in ways few other producers can.
If Burial's atmospheric noir deals in urban blight, then Northern Ireland's Boxcutter traces violations of the pastoral, transmissions from the countryside as the city steadily encroaches. His debut, Oneiric, nods to cosmic free jazz as much as it does 2-step, lacing the loping rhythms with arching flute lines, ascendant keyboards, and syncopated drums. But even though Boxcutter name-checks a Pharoah Sanders record with album opener "Tauhid," there's a far more malefic tension at work.
His grasp of jazz figures is refracted through dubstep's agitated pulse, resulting in potent hybrids like "Sunshine V.I.P." and "Silver Birch Solstice"-clear melodies that fight for air against stabbing keys and nagging beats. These flights are punctuated with dingier treks into heavier rhythms, as with the insistent percussion and terse bass throb of "Skuff'd." The only real respite comes with "Gave Dub," an almost genteel slow-burn, low-end groove. Although Boxcutter prefers sensory overload to Burial's passionate restraint, both artists highlight how current dubstep is simply a starting point for ever-expanding exploration.