Remember Roni Size? His UK Mercury prize-winning album New Forms
was supposed to turn us on once and for all to drum & bass.
New Forms was an audacious blend of club rhythms, divaesque
vocals, and acoustic stand-up basslines that took a lot of
non-club-goers by surprise though not people who had been going
to clubs, given that some of New Forms was four years old by
the time it was released.
The revolution never happened, though. Drum & bass purists decried
Size's corruption of the form, and for most people the genre is still
just too fast and too remote. New Forms began the humanization
of the genre, though, and, happily, Size is back at it again.
Breakbeat Era is by no means a Roni Size solo project, but it's his
name that opens doors. Fronted by singer Leonie Laws and produced by
Size and longtime collaborator DJ Die, Breakbeat Era's debut
Ultra-Obscene is just as audacious as New Forms, if not
more so. Using drum & bass' skittering rhythms as a foundation instead
of a raison d'etre, the record is dance-floor-ready without
Laws wrote melodies on top of Size and Die's backing tracks, and her
work was careful and passionate these are songs, not groove
explorations or standard-issue diva-belters. Look no further than
Laws' first appearance on "Rancid" (RealAudio
excerpt) for evidence of her excellent handiwork over a spare, frenetic beat with organic drums, a fevered vibe-line, and deep-set guitars, Laws draws out a paranoid vocal in staccato bursts. She's carefully written her vocal line to weave around the stuttering snare and kick-bass it's here, and it's all over the record.
The song "Breakbeat Era" (RealAudio
excerpt) is a strange marvel, as Laws slyly matches the
walking bass with her chorus. Her voice comes across as a tougher
version of Portishead's Beth Gibbons, but without so much artifice.
Gibbons plays a role in each song she sings, while Laws reacts a
little more viscerally.
Live the band is reportedly incendiary but Size and Die are
nowhere to be found. Instead Laws is accompanied by a bassist,
technician, and (believe it or not) live drummer. Without her more
famous collaborators, the show becomes Laws' to win or lose, and she
succeeds massively, prompting Melody Maker to rave "Leonnie
Laws is so sassy it hurts."
"Sassy" might not be the first thing that comes to mind upon
listening to Ultra-Obscene. Perhaps "seething," or
"impassioned." Still, it's force of personality that propelled
Prodigy from dance floor to MTV, and it might just work for the
edgy, melodic, rock 'n' roll aesthetic that Breakbeat Era brings to
drum & bass. Keep your ears open.