Sunday, 17 March 2013

John B - Electrostep (2006) Review

John B has been around for a long time now, his first appearances doing darkstep on labels like Metalheadz being back in the late 90s. But since about 2001 his career has notably focused on pushing the drum and bass genre out of its rough and reese-heavy safe zone into more unusual territory, with multiple EPs and now three albums incorporating trance and electroclash elements into the genre. While in 2013 this might not seem all that radical, post DJ Fresh and his chart-conquering singles in the last two years which borrowed heavily from both of those sources, this was the early 2000s when Pendulum hadn't even come over to Britain with their stadium rock ideals yet. John B was sticking his neck out a lot, especially as the DnB scene frequently goes through periods of everyone trying to out-macho everybody else with the hardest and dirtiest tracks possible, and this was starting to occur at the time. While other heads reacted to this by jumping to the then more experimental and more sub-heavy vibe of early dubstep, John B drew on his other influences to spice up his sound. 2004's in:Transit was an album that combined a trancestep sound with darker more traditional DnB and played down his passion for synthpop and electroclash - two years later, this was to be completely inverted by Electrostep.

is dominated from the outset by traditional 80s drum machine sounds and rough, coarse analogue synthesizer work. Plenty of old school handclaps, clicky hi-hats and even the distinctive TR-808 clave replace the sampled live breakbeat percussion that predominates in DnB, and this isn't a detriment to these songs at all. It creates a very different sound and definitely helps shift the tone somewhat from the rough aggressive vibe of DnB to a more clinical and spacious one, and this results in many of these songs seeming slightly slower than their actual tempos would imply, but this works in favour of the synthpop sound, as cluttering up songs that are meant to live on stripped-down analogue simplicity would be counterproductive. While the groove may be more mechanical, befitting the electroclash aesthetic, it's got enough funk in it not to abandon DnB. Massive sounding crunchy saw waves, choral synth sounds straight out of a New Order album and the occasional electric guitar chug  pop up all over these tracks.

John B's very melodic songwriting focus is very apparent on Electrostep as well. Pretty and ear-catching 8th notes seem to be the order of the day on the tranciest track, a remix of Iowatest's "Timelapse", and the cheeky electroclash-styled (and unimaginatively named) "Electronic" which are my two favourites from the album due to the addictiveness of their lead melodies. The latter's electroclash feel is completed by the robotised vocals from John B himself, which I assume are tongue-in-cheek, about being a New Romantic playboy DJ. Some might find this kind of thing rather smug, but given that a lot of early 2000s electroclash had a "music for dickheads" kind of feel to it, this manages to fit right into and take the piss out of the scene at the same time, which is always appreciated. John B uses the robot vocals on two earlier tracks too. These are the album opener "Rendez Vous" which makes a case for the genre itself by relying heavily on those drum machines I mentioned earlier, backed up by another catchy John B melody behind the vocals and a crunchier, but still very 80s, lead synth, and the other is the more stripped back title track which is similar but has more focus on the drums, with 16th note hi-hats and 808 clave going all over the place on this one but not sounding like a mess - they feel as if they have always belonged in DnB. The rework of the fully tranced-up opener of in:Transit, "Midnight Air" which gives the song two stronger lead melodies and a slightly truncated running time while keeping the hands-in-air atmosphere, is also a highlight.

Elsewhere on the album we do have two tracks which always raise my eyebrow and usually irritate me, because I feel like the irony of their concept, and even some of the creativity in their execution, has failed to save them from the fact that they're just not good covers. "Tainted Love" as performed by Soft Cell is a an all-time synthpop classic that's more popular and definitely more significant than the (still great) Gloria Jones original. John B here adapts it with spoken word vocals by Marcy Meow and features a sample of Soft Cell's genre-defining synth blasts very prominently. Despite the fact that the production is still good here, not dropping from the high standards of the rest of the album, my tolerance of this is limited as my standards are always high for covers and I just don't want to hear the power of those lyrics sapped by an uninspiring vocal performance. "Hey Mickey" is nowhere near as beloved a song, and as such I find it less irritating that it's covered in the same way (big DnB reese notwithstanding), but it's still not a good cover. These tend to mar my enjoyment of the tracks that surround them -  the remix of Dirty Sanchez' "Fucking on the Dancefloor", and John B's own "Fashion" and "Take Me Home" which are again tracks that dive straight into the electroclash aesthetic, dignity optional. While the latter two are clearly the templates for the two covers, for me because they are about cheesy subjects and the tongue is again firmly in cheek they pull off the irreverent trashy sound rather better. "Take me home" is also on in:Transit, which is a rather lazy re-use of a track (and it's very cheeky to feature TWO tracks from the previous album on a new one!) but it does sound completely at home on this album.

The album's three closers are all more trance than electro, moving back toward to in:transit's epic trancestep tone and including more natural drums once again. I like all three of these tracks, although following the ridiculously over-the-top electro material that precedes them they can't help but incredibly restrained. Final track "Remember Tonight" is the pick of the three for me, featuring another catchy John B melody, big fat reese and topped off with John B vocodering his own vocals - he's not the strongest singer, but it'll do for a trancestep track (at least he's not trying too hard to be profound, like most men singing on trance seem to end up doing).

So is it a good album? While my answer is "yes", I think that this album is not such an easy sell as many others I'm fond of. For a start, if you like your DnB either old school and subtle, or hardcore and breakbeat heavy, you're not going to get these, because John B cares not for restraint when it comes either to his sound design or embracing the the trashiness and camp that comes by the bucketload in electroclash. You have to have a sense of fun about your electronic music to listen to this one, that's for sure. If you're the kind of macho DnB fan who thinks his haircut and makeup combined with the pink and white colour scheme on the CD sleeve make him look girly, this might be a warning sign that it's not for you. But if you're like me and synthpop was your gateway to electronica, trance is a pleasure and electroclash was an exciting and amusing break with the stodgy and conservative dance scene of its time, you'll probably get this and have great fun with it, even if only as a guilty pleasure. For me it's not his best album, but it's certainly one of the most shameless genre bending albums to have come from Drum and Bass, and is definitely worth a place on my shelf.

Top tracks are: Timelapse, Electronic, and Midnight Air 2006.

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