Monday, 10 June 2013

Decoder - Encrypted EP Review [1999]

Decoder is the stage name used by a UK DnB producer Darren Beale, sometimes solo and at other times in partnership with Mark Caro, also known as Technical Itch. Beale and Caro both have a fairly long history with the DnB genre going back to the early 90s hardcore era and Caro remains devoted to the genre today under his main alias. Beale however, as one of the three members of Kosheen, has produced a tiny number of DnB tracks in the last decade since the first Kosheen album, Resist. As a big fan of that album and the Drum and Bass portion of it in particular, I've recently gone on a crusade to dig through the earlier releases of Decoder prior to the band's formation. The Encrypted EP, from 1999 on Caro's Tech Itch Records, is a particularly good place to start - a double 12" release of four tracks, it includes two that are collaborations with Mark "Substance" Morrison, another Kosheen member and very frequent collaborator with Beale even before the band was formed. Released shortly before their linkup with singer Sian Evans, it's useful to draw some contrasts between these tunes and the unique direction they would later take.


The first disc contains both of the collaborations. "Hazardous", is probably my favourite Decoder and Substance solo track to date, in spite of what seems like a slightly excessive length and slow build up, neither of which would go down well with DnB crowds of 2013. As with any dance music, sustaining energy for this amount of time in one track is a very delicate thing but this track is so well put together it almost feels effortless. The drums are very crunchy from the less intense intro to the hard-hitting middle section and the offbeat bassline is so perfectly balanced between its square wave mid-range character synth and the rumbling sub bass that this track barely needs any other elements in it at all. This is one of those tracks where it's hard to concentrate on what's actually going on sometimes because you're too busy going nuts to it, not because it's extreme or frantic but just because you're locked into the groove too well. Absolutely classic.

Darker and wobblier "Last Stop" on the flip isn't quite as engaging as Hazardous, and relies a little more on its atmospheric samples and synths to keep it going, but it's still a great bit of dark dnb. The main bass parts are a bar and a half of modulated sub-heavy throb followed by a half bar of wobble, creating a nice contrast between sounds that means it doesn't get monotonous, and the samples are expertly chosen - bright spooky piano especially.

While I have had some concerns about Decoder's solo material before - I thought a fair number of tracks on his Concussion album didn't do enough to get you to put up with the repetitive nature of this kind of music - his Substance-less tracks on the second disc of Encrypted manage to largely avoid this problem.

"Dead Calm" is a real headbanger - this dark number's brittle intro opens up to the mid-range bass synth before bringing in the booming sub and airy crash cymbals, then ups the stakes with a more present bass synth after the breakdown. The bass parts have a slightly less-is-more feel to them - nothing too overpowering or constant, builds some great short-term tension tension by resting the synths for a few beats before the next two eighth-note blasts of the dropping bass jumps you right back up again. This makes a great groove, and the tune has almost as much energy as "Hazardous", with more than enough movement to get you lost in the vibe.

"BS9" nearly lulls you into a false sense of security, with its 90s liquid pad in the intro, but it's not long before the dirty 90s drum kit and big sub-bass characteristic of this whole EP come right back to play with the relatively chilled atmospherics. This makes BS9 the lightest track here easily, although that's only relatively speaking. Alternating between a snarling reese and squeaky throb when it gets going, this rounds off Encrypted with a groove that would be as home in a warm-up set as at peaktime.

Ok, while clearly these are cut from similar cloth, they are all distinct enough to be interesting in their own right and all four are worth checking out and considering. None of these tracks remind me of any Kosheen songs at all, despite preceding Resist by such a short time. Other Decoder tunes, particularly those from Concussion, have elements that I recognised in them but these four, as long-form tracks clearly intended for clubs given the lack of CD release, stand apart from any album oriented work the two producers have done. I've probably made it clear though that I find them all the better for it. if I was in a club and the DJ spun any of these, I'd be very happy indeed, and if it was "Hazardous" I think I'd probably be making a fool of myself, I love the bounce of that track so much. So this kind of DnB is something Kosheen as a full band have never done, and I now think that's a real shame.

This is from before I got into Drum and Bass, unfortunately for me - although if I had experienced these tunes, I might well have jumped on the bandwagon seven years earlier! This means I'm not able to put them in context of their time, although hopefully as I delve further back into the genre's roots, it will start to make more sense. This EP was a pretty good reason for me to get a turntable I reckon - it's even got smart styling on the disc labels - and well worth me seeking out a copy.

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