It is common knowledge among Drum & Bass enthusiasts that Tom Rockwell is a unique artist in a scene where more and more artists and labels seem to be pushing for a more commercial, formulaic sound intended to smash dancefloors in big clubs and festivals, but that is leaving little room for imagination or repeated listening (especially at the rate music is being pumped out and released).
Of course, people will claim that this commercialisation of the sound has been caused by the scene’s second massive peak of popularity in Europe and it making more inroads than ever in North America, helped by the EDM boom of the past 5 years or so. But the good news is there are still many innovative producers out there still pushing forward and redefining what DnB can be.
Rockwell is one of those artists and his productions stand out among the fray. Extremely catchy and friendly even to the casual electronic music listener, yet boldly experimental in a lot of its song structures and hyperkinetic sound design, rivalled only by artists from the Warp Records roster like Rustie or Planet Mu-affiliated madman Venetian Snares and producers from IDM’s golden days.
He recently released his long awaited debut album Obsolete Medium on Shogun Audio, a project which he has been slaving over for roughly 2 years. And from what we can hear, he has indeed put a staggering amount of work and meticulous craftsmanship into it. Every song on it is simply amazing! Rockwell’s unique brand of ghetto-tek meets rave meets techno meets hip-hop encapsulated into a drum & bass framework and tempo is nothing short of mind-blowing!
It also shows that quite a bit of thought went into the album’s title, as more and more the album is becoming obsolete as a means for an artist to share his creative output. There is so much music being released these days, and even though for any given genre, only a small quantity of it is good and only an infinitesimal fraction of it is excellent, but even from that very small pool of music, there seems to be too much for the average music fan to have the time to fully appreciate all of it… How to cut through the noise to make one’s self heard, or even just noticed? EPs and singles seem to be the golden tickets here, as most producers will only spend a few weeks or months producing them and can keep pumping them out on a regular basis to keep their visibility high, and thus land more bookings. Because, let’s face it if an artist can’t even make money from a single or an EP, which are much cheaper than a full album, they have to play out to make any sort of income from their musical outlet.
Thus, the ill-fated album, once a source of pride and of boundless discovery for an artist, and a worthy investment for a music consumer who wants to embark on a musical journey provided by their favourite musicians, has lost its charm for both parties. The artist will say, “why should I invest 1-2 years of hard work and sleepless nights into a project that won’t make me a dime?” And audiences will say, “why should I waste my money on or time listening to a whole album when I just want the instant gratification of the singles and move on to something else next week?”
But Rockwell understands how to craft a proper album. A collection of works that represents his vision, that sums up his outlook on the world. A well-paced trek through the mind of an artist bubbling with unconventional and extremely interesting musical ideas! The title may be a reflection of the majority of people’s take on the album format, but this LP most definitely refutes this interpretation.
Listening to its entirety is never boring, nor is it hard work intellectually, even though an immense amount of content has been packed into its 13 tracks (and 2 the nod-to-hardcore-punk interludes that also reflect the man’s penchant to just do what he wants and not conform to any set stereotypes).
His music is also very indicative of DnB’s perpetual identity crisis, polarised between its obsession with the nostalgia of its own past and its modus operandi of always pushing production and sound design to the bleeding edge, into the future. His music embodies this dichotomy brilliantly, referencing many aspects of 90’s rave music and also other musical genres that themselves revolutionised what music could be in the 80’s: hip-hop and hardcore punk. Yet sonically, his arrangements, sound design and sequencing are in a league of their own, ideal for listeners with ADHD and sounding like they come straight out of the year 3000. But this futuristic aspect isn’t the “usual” DnB-fare that is usually quite dark, like the sonic equivalent of an epic space opera or bleak cyberpunk dystopia. It is quite techy and firmly orientated to the future, but a vision of it that is more nuanced and balanced in tone.
Also, being a fan of Rustie’s album Glass Swords, I really enjoy Rockwell’s aesthetic of crafting happy sounding, bouncy rhythms and rave chords and stabs filled with pleasant, kawaii sounds, which just bring a big smile to your face. This choice in sonic identity marks a stark contrast with most of what is popular in DnB at the moment, be it the ultra-clean, almost muzak-ish smooth vibes of liquid, aiming for the charts, or the noisy mechanoïd mid-range bass and ultra dense, wall of sound, loud as fuck neurofunk that rivals death metal in terms of its heaviness and power.
Another much-appreciated aspect of Obsolete Medium is that Rockwell is adept at creating simultaneously very melodic compositions and arranging them into very techy and surgical productions, which will please fans of both Liquid and Neurofunk and bridge the often very large gap between the two sub-genres. Also, I’m not the biggest fan of half-time tunes, usually just being very well engineered hip-hop to me, but Rockwell’s attempts at these on 14Me, Guts Blood Sex Drugs, Dizzle and Technoir I find very satisfying, engaging and grand in scope.
Tom also chose his collaborators well. Sam Binga and Hyroglifics help him craft a hell of a banger on Itsok2behapp-e, which could easily be his next Detroit, with its bouncy 808 beat, infectious bassline and tripped out rave stabs and vocal snippets. Breakage also brings the fire on the album’s standout half-time tune Technoir with its cinematic synth-wavey intro and stripped down drop, with a killer melodic bassline later complemented by enveloping synths and a G-Funk lead. That tune struck a chord with me, reminding me of the Purple tunes from Joker, 2000F and J Kamata that made me fall in love with dubstep on the Five Years Of Hyperdub compilation. And let’s not forget Rave Cult, in which Rockwell and Phace both bring their best chops to the table, combining the former’s love of sample-chopping and the latter’s heavy, twitchy neurofunk badassery.
For the vocal collabs, it’s quite novel that he chose an American MC instead of going for, say Foreign Beggars, Coppa or SP:MC, to make a killer hip-hoppy track. Instead, we have Jams on Guts Blood Sex Drugs which more than adequately puts most MCs to shame with his laid-back delivery and no fucking around attitude. The collab I fell least in love with was the opening song Faces with Lauren L’aimant, in which I didn’t find the vocals very magnetising (aimant is French for loving – the adjective – and also for a magnet), the tune is well constructed and has a nice groove, but the vocals are way too poppy for my taste.
In terms of its pacing, the balance between the relentless party rave tunes and the half-time numbers is very well sequenced, because you never feel that you are getting too much of one thing, as is often the case with albums that have a very singular vision. Never once did I feel bored (except my annoyance with the first song’s vocals, but that’s just my personal taste) and I could listen to it on a loop all day, and I certainly wouldn’t mind if the whole album got rinsed during a set in a club.
The song themselves are also very well paced and structured, and you never feel like you are listening to a tiring 16-bar loop, because Rockwell just throws in new elements left, right and centre at a brisk pace, to the point where I never even noticed that Please Please Please (Play This on the Radio) had a 3 minute intro. It shows that Tom worked long and hard on these songs, describing his creative process as tweaking and refining a loop countless times before committing to its final incarnation. This level of attention to detail also rewards repeated listens, as the songs are so dense and layered, packed to the brim with interesting sounds, that you will notice something new upon each listen, be it the intricate drum patterns, the inventive basslines, the carefully crafted atmospheres and all the amazing synth programming and sample-chopping worthy of Todd Edwards and Akufen.
To conclude this very in-depth and analytical review, I will just say that I can’t get enough of this album. I listen to it in full almost once a day, something I haven’t done since Reso’s Ricochet or Mefjus’s Emulation. I pretty much love every song on this album to bits (bar Faces), and every time I listen I discover something new, a feature only truly great albums possess. Buy it now and listen to the hell out of it. You will not regret it.