The nebulous sub-genre of “post-dubstep” has many confusing cross-currents and streams, but its most vital contribution has been a renewed emphasis on sensual musicality. Acts like Martyn, Joy Orbison, Zomby and Joker, and labels like Night Slugs, Numbers and Hyperdub, have taken the enveloping bass of dubstep and grime and added funkier and more flexible rhythms, warm chords and zingy synthesized melodies shooting every which way but loose. And now Manchester producer Damu has produced what is possibly the most coherent statement of this strain yet.
The Keysound label boss Martin “Blackdown” Clark — also well known as DJ, journalist and producer in his own right — has always had an ear for the most technically refined producers in grime, dubstep and related scenes, and in signing Damu, his taste is reaffirmed. While Unity contains a broad range of rhythms, tempos and influences, Damu’s sheer musicianship gives it coherence. The slow development of its themes and the deadly precision of its sonic palette means that it binds together as a whole in a way that few club albums manage.
Whether the rhythm is a steady house pulse, the skipping funk of U.K. garage, or jazzy syncopations that recall the broken beat scene of the late ’90s, there’s a glorious excessiveness to the layering of sub-bass, chords and synth leads that is only possible because of Damu’s clear understanding of harmony and counterpoint. It’s peppered, too, with sensuous vocal snippets and pinprick-sharp high-frequency percussion sounds that act as punctuation and highlights in the unfolding patterns, constantly grabbing your attention and preventing it from becoming merely wishy-washy mood music.
Unity is saved from becoming sonically homogeneous by the insistent hooks that give each track its distinctive identity. The sweet “let the games begin” vocal of “Breathless,” the synthetic steel drum riff of “L.O.V.E.” (which is so infectious as to be almost, but not quite, annoying), the sheets of white noise that slide and bend across one another in “Maths is Fine for Sum”: Each lodges in the brain, making sure that each track functions as instantly and memorably as a great club tune should, even as they contribute to the greater whole of the album.
The lynchpin that holds the album together is the stunning “Ridin’ the Hype,” which features maverick east London grime MC Trim. On his mixtapes and guest appearances, Trim has been one of the bleakest rappers in the scene, with his slow and sparse style providing a stark contrast to the rapid-fire fury of many grime artists, and his gallows humor and insular surrealism making him seem like some gutter Zen philosopher. Damu’s mutant R&B backing and Trim’s poetic bent transform the song into a reflection on reflection, one of the best renderings I can recall of that moment, which any true clubber will recognize, when for a moment you step outside yourself and find peace among the noise and movement of the crowded dancefloor.