Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Seba - Identity (2013) Review

Seba is a very well-established name within the atmospheric and funky side of drum and bass. His mid-90s releases include landmark tune Sonic Winds, and later on he made excursions into more minimal dnb and trancestep. It's through the latter of these that I discovered him, after his collaborative tracks with Kirsty Hawkshaw and hearing his music played by John B, so I'm very much a new fan of Seba's music. Identity draws on his trancier side, his minimal influences from his work with Paradox, and a general all-round professionalism and attention to detail not always found in drum and bass. It is an album very likely to solidify my appreciation for him.

Atmospheric and Liquid dnb can sometimes be a slightly odd concept for newcomers to grasp - drum and bass is after all, from its very roots, based firmly around pretty in-your-face sounds both in terms of the heavy sub bass (and accompanying mid-range character synths) and the usually frantic and brittle breakbeat samples that gave birth to the genre. The difficulty for the musician comes in creating atmospheric dnb that strips back and tames both of these elements without losing most of the energy they provide and turning into mere ambient or jazz music at a high tempo. Seba is definitely not one to fall into that trap, and Identity is proof of that.

The overall impression of Identity is that each song includes only what was needed, and neither more nor less. This leads to a slight tinge of minimalism to its tone, but without any emptiness or the niggling feeling that you're missing something. There is loudness, but not harshness, and there is space, but also something filling it up (rather than being crammed in). None of them come out of nowhere and smack you in the face, but they all have you roped in after a few measures and listening intently to where they progress. The same mentality extends to the two 4x4 tracks, which fit right in next to the DnB here and don't become black sheep for the album.

Seba is also one of those dance producers who manages to balance out both sides of the dynamics vs. loudness conundrum, not having to sacrifice movement and subtlety in order to have music that can be heard on big systems, laptops and headphones. One reason why Seba can manage to have his cake and eat it is that all of the drum sounds are chosen so carefully and posses sufficient timbral character that every kick really hits at you, every snare clicks through the mix and the background percussion can be heard clearly without having to need any really obvious sidechained ducking or excessive distortion or treble excitation. This is obviously pretty important for Drum and Bass in particular as well as dance in general, but it's far from common to hear it done so well. 

Along with the synths and other sounds, which are chosen and created no less carefully, this care and precision back up the songwriting and arrangement of the songs and makes them work. Put simply, Seba is a no-gimmicks and extremely measured arranger, and in none of these songs will you find an overload of breakbeats fighting against each other, too many synths occupying the same harmonic space, or crucially, melodies pulling the listener in opposite directions. 

So the whole album is sumptuous for the ears, but what about the character of the songs themselves? I cannot fault any of them, honestly. This is a set of that you'd have a real struggle to nit-pick any details out of. Minimal title track "Identiy" has bucketloads of aural space to fit in the warm square wave bass, subtle plucks and the vocodered spoken word, talking about sound, musical creativity and imitators, which is what makes it more memorable. The lead single "Too Much too Soon" is a a proper vocal track incorporating chuggy electric guitar to support its rhythm, and trancey synths to add to the atmosphere which make it the song with the most obvious crossover potential on the album, deep house track "Could This Be Love" has a great groove with a hint of the Balearic and just enough percussion, and frequent collaborator Kirsty Hawkshaw returns to contribute to another subtle trancey number in "Nothing Can Replace".  Final track "What's Your Fantasy" is also worthy of note, as it's a fairly repetitive track that manages not to grate due to the smoothly executed transitions between sections, hypnotic rhythms aided by the dungeon-style big reverb and gentle modulation and fading of the synths, so this is a great song to end the album on. 

But none of the others have any flaws that undermine them as good tracks in their own right - this is a set with no turkeys, no guilty pleasures and nothing which undermines the central strength of Seba's songwriting or production. If you're an atmospheric dnb fan, it's a must buy. If you're into minimal or trancestep, it's a pretty good bet too - neither completely focused on just breaks and sub or bright piercing synths, this middle path should satisfy you just as much if you're willing to pay attention to the effort on display here. Even if you're only casually into DnB, definitely give it a listen!

Standout tracks are: Identity, Too Much too Soon, Nothing Can Replace.

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