Review Summary: Skream attempts to think outside the box and hits a wall in the process
While you’ll never catch me riding in the same boat as everyone else who heaped massive acclaim over Skream’s (real name Oliver Jones) self titled debut, I’ll forever be aware of the influence it had over its genre. Back when dubstep was all about the sonic boom and the instant hit, here was an album that chose to sneak in the back door, replaced clap happy percussion with sparse compositions and nauseous layerings of bass with a much more organic style. He bought a working man’s vibe with him, an effortless cool that was maintained by his laconic approach, his almost unwillingness to fit in, and his unassuming demeanor. It paved the way for scene riders like Mount Kimbie, James Blake, Joy Orbison – anyone playing around with the idea of “post dubstep”. Hell, even Burial owes him more than just a few pats on the back. Yeah, he had the bangers, but they were scattered few and far between patchy descents into fields of 8-bit and chiptune. It seemed like he was holding back, not wanting to give everything so early, like he was building a career out of promises of what “could have been”, rather than what “came to be”. And yet, strangely, it wasn’t long before he would rectify this; his continuing series of Screamizm E.P’s have proven that when it comes to crunch time Skream can, in fact, deliver the goods.
Dubstep has gone through something of a transformation since Skream’s inception. Moving from a grassroots movement into almost mainstream territory, many of the genre’s flag bearers have already gone the way of crossing over, Rusko’s debut being the first that comes to mind. As underground as Skream would like you to believe that he is, the man must be credited for knowing a good way to spread his gospel. Cue his famed 2009 remix of La Roux’s ‘In the Kill’, a track that precariously balanced the line between scene clinging and pop sheen. And its that tenuous relationship that finds itself splashed all over Skream’s bright and chirpy new album Outside The Box
, a deceptive title if ever there was one. At times it’s an uneasy mix, an almost strained pairing with neither side showing signs of being particularly comfortable with its opposing partner. The sad reality is that he doesn’t show enough knack in pulling off either style with full credibility, so instead of tipping the scales in one particular direction the album tends to sit awkwardly in between the two uniquely different styles. It’s a perfect balance so to speak, but in this case that’s just not a good thing.
That doesn’t mean to say that he gets it all wrong though, because Skream is more than capable at crafting absurdly addictive tracks that have the very ability to entrance and captivate like a kind of pied piper of dubstep if you will. ‘I Love the Way’ is pure gold, simple and yet delightfully efficient, with its breakbeat inspired finale sketching out a path across the tracks makeshift gloom and borderline reflective female vocals. Lead single ‘Listenin’ to the Records on My Wall’ rewinds the clock and hits with a wave of jungle nostalgia, coming across as a lost tourist, more at home in rave fields of dusty travelers than a dingy smoke filled club with the city’s traffic as its roof. ‘Wibbler’ is all aggro, intense and visceral, filled to the brim with teeth rattling bass and a propensity to blast cobwebs off of dusty speakers. It’s also the loner, with its closest relation being ‘Reflections’, an intense pairing between Jones and hard hitters dBridge and Instra: mental. Like ‘Wibbler’ it’s a cut that tries for full intrusion, but does so at a much more delicate pace, constantly unfurling and expanding but always making the right steps, putting the right foot forward, never hesitant but courageous and unwavering in its confidence.
But all of these cuts unfold around the halfway mark and onwards, it’s the decidedly dodgy opening moments that warrant the most scrutiny, and the least amount of attention from the listener. Murs is all hot air and gusto in his weak attempt at a call to arms in first full track ‘8-Bit’, a Nintendo like number that is neither harmful nor incredibly important. And ‘CPU’ plays its cards to close to its chest, unable to find a middle ground with which to exist, it stumbles and falters, beginning and ending half-heartedly. Even La Roux’s return to the fold can’t quite bring the magic back; despite their previous accomplishment Jones just seems to get lost in trying to work with her vocal talents.
In trying to smooth out the hard edges of dubstep in an attempt to gain a few extra followers Jones has removed all the necessary ingredients that have proved so potent and vital for a success within the genre. His main problem is that he still tries to retain a giant level of seriousness with his work; whereas Rusko’s recent effort was playful and ripe with sadly under-appreciated tongue in cheek camp-ness, Outside the Box
is brutally unrelenting in its desire to be taken legitimately. It’s too straight of a line, with no room to breathe. Despite some mesmerizing highlights Skream hasn’t managed to live up to the hype surrounding this release. And the sad fact of the matter is, for all of this thinking outside the box nonsense that Skream is apparently trying to convince us of, he’s managed to confine and restrict himself quite nicely……go figure.