Underwater Dancehall Album Launch

Al Fresco surfaces from a night out in Bristol with sore ears and a bout of decompression sickness.

By Al Fresco

Bristol is officially the nangest place on the face of the planet. I have woken up with no money, a cranium-splintering hangover and tinnitus. My trainers are caked in black gunge, my clothes are strewn about the floor amid heaps of crumpled flyers. In fact, I don’t even know where I am (somewhere near Bristol City football ground, I think). As I stumble out the door and orientate myself, a shell-suited yoot strides past blazing a fat skunk joint. I love this place.

My shameful state seems a small price to pay for what was probably the best night I’ve had out all year — the launch party for the debut album by Pinch, Bristol’s dubstep lynchpin. Pinch is one of the most important people on the city’s music scene right now, and last night’s dance, the second of his celebrated Subloaded parties at Clockwork, saw his Underwater Dancehall LP unveiled in fine style.

Bristol’s venues ride peculiar waves of popularity — flavour of the month one minute, tumbleweed blowing through the next. Nestling at the lower end of Stokes Croft, Clockwork is currently the city’s underground hotspot — a roomy two-floor sweatbox decked out upstairs and down with pounding Funktion One sound. Known for years as Inferno, then Casablanca, the club used to host weekly rock nights and, some time ago, before violent incidents became too frequent, jungle — but over the past year the place has steadily reinvented itself as a hub for Bristol’s more discerning promoters. Having been hounded by the council over noise pollution at previous events, held across town at the infamous Black Swan, Subloaded seems more than settled in its new home tonight as it celebrates its third birthday — by 11.30 entry is ticket only; by midnight the club is bursting at capacity.

On arrival there’s a rowdy assortment spilling into the road outside: students, dreads, dolled-up young girls, the fashionably shabby, the downright dishevelled, the stoned, the drunk and, inevitably, representation from Bristol’s ubiquitous ketamine crew. If this is any indication of what’s going off inside, it’s going to be one lively evening.

I’m standing upstairs in the world’s slowest-moving cloakroom queue as the steppy, broken rhythms of 2562 ricochet off the walls. Dave Huisman, aka 2562, is a young Dutch artist whose timely techno-dubstep hybrid has scored him two essential 12s on Pinch’s Tectonic imprint. The music he’s playing tonight — at least, the half hour I catch — is heavily weighted with a garage flavour: brutalist 2-step rhythms peppered with skittery electro breaks and discofied beats, with huge, marauding basslines roaming about beneath everything. When, towards the end of his set he drops his ferocious remix of Shed’s Masque, it’s as if the sound system is playing table tennis with my head.

2562 warms the crowd perfectly for Pinch, who takes over around 12.30. Pinch has a sense of flow superior to nearly every DJ prominent on the dubstep scene — and his sets are always programmed to perfection. Tonight he’s showcasing material from Underwater Dancehall, accompanied onstage for many tracks by an MC, who I’m reliably informed is Jakes. Up until quite recently Pinch has openly spoken of a lack of self-confidence in his own productions, but whatever he felt he was missing he’s clearly found in spades. His tracks are never formulaic, but do have certain defining characteristics. Firstly, there’s the total lack of clutter — no hit, sound or effect is surplus to requirements; mastering the art of true minimalism is no mean feat, but Pinch is becoming ever-more refined in his stripped-down approach to production. Secondly, his tracks are underpinned with atmospherics to die for — brooding, unbroken sound design skulking beneath the beats like unnerving subplots. Thirdly, his tracks are largely built around bass rather than rhythm — Pinch may not write the most outwardly party-time basslines, but he sure has some of the deepest. Jakes’ rhymes and interjections are, for the most part, a tight complement to tonight's futuristic murk, though his calls for a rewind, when Pinch drops one really disgusting number, get flatly rebuffed. Pinch is known for his restrain with rewinds, and this tune is particularly unstoppable. Denied, Jakes saunters sheepishly to the side of the stage as the tune crashes on. However, when Pinch drops The Bug’s Skeng it’s all too much, and the first rewind of the night generates an atomic reaction from the floor. Skeng would have taken the title for tune of the night hands down, had it not been for a sublime vocal cut from Pinch, Get Up featuring Yolanda — a track that induces the first ‘what-the-fuck?’ moment of his set (the second comes a little later, when the whole room unexpectedly finds itself jacking to minimal techno).

I grab a beer when Pinch’s set ends. Standing by the bar with Bristol movers and shakers Atki2, Peverelist and Dub Boy, the clarity of the venue’s sound system really hits home — not that it’s remarkably loud from the other end of the room, but you can hear and feel everything. Up next, Loefah and Mala have the crowd like putty in their hands, dropping some seriously twitchy, techy numbers, Skeng again, to an equally rapturous response, and plenty of stance-widening, low-end riffs that make you want to punch holes in the floor. Judging by the number of people banging into me, there’s some considerable stance widening going on.

Smokers, like drinkers (the beer is always stupidly warm), are not best catered for at Clockwork. The club’s smoking ‘system’ involves queuing for half an hour or more, being given a ticket and then descending some stairs to small cage on the street behind the venue. Being a smoker, I treat myself to one excursion midway through the night, and in the strangely sweet-smelling coop I talk to a couple of guys about the night’s events so far. It’s high time I go downstairs, I tell them, to check the all-out bass warfare between Leed’s Iration Steppas sound system and Birmingham’s Hytal Bosrah. They seem to be from one of the crews, so I ask if they’re feeling the main room dubstep flavours: “It’s just a watered-down version of what’s being played downstairs” one of them laughs. Nah mate, it’s an underwater version of what’s being played downstairs, I chuckle back.

In terms of intensity, though, he has a point. Walking into the downstairs room a short while later, a dormant speaker stack suddenly explodes with chest-crushing bass. The two crews are battering each other in ten-minute bouts, both sides dropping real bruisers. It’s a whole different vibe to upstairs, and totally incomparable. I skank about, wobble a bit, have yet another conversation with someone about the virtues of ear plugs, and then head back upstairs for some of DJ Distance. Reeling from the ear-bleeding pressure below, I keep my, er, distance, loitering instead at the bar. I’m not the biggest fan of his sound, but the man has clearly been tearing it up to a locked, sweaty crowd. Sadly the smoking ban means that the smell of stale body odour is no longer masked by fag smoke, and I hold Distance personally responsible for making the room stink like a big Ginsters pasty since I was last in there.

Having spun at Fabric’s 8th birthday bash in London earlier in the evening, Skream arrives late to play the final slot upstairs. When I caught him at an early Subloaded he wiped the floor with the rest of the bill, but tonight he sounds linear and predictable compared to previous acts. The tunes are breezeblock heavy and tightly mixed, but after all the cerebral, spacious stuff played throughout the night, it’s tiring to both listen and dance to. So we leave, stumbling out the door, through the thrusting arms of Bristol’s flyering legions and into the nearest cab.

In terms of boundary pushing electronic music, Subloaded is the most exciting club night happening in Bristol at the moment — a party where people from all scenes come together and get their rocks off to some seriously abstract beats and basslines. The city has been busily mutating hip hop and reggae for the past 25 years; dubstep may be a nascent musical form with its spiritual home in south London, but the Bristol connection is sending the style spinning off in a startling new trajectory.
jabba posted 24 October 2007 (16:13:36)
'making the room stink like a big Ginsters pasty'. haha pure jokes!
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