Tuesday, June 28, 2016

High Contrast - Tough Guys Don't Dance (Original TC Review)

Hospital Records: 2007

(2016 Update)
'Tough guys' may not dance, but only when we're dishin' out some tough, critical love, eh? I mean, wow, I could be a hard ass on trance in the TranceCritic days, but I sure wasn't giving High Contrast much slack here. I think the problem was, listening to this album a few times over as I typically did before reviewing something back then, a number of these tracks quickly grew too repetitive for my liking. Having some years and musical distance from this album though,
Tough Guys Don't Dance is actually a good rollickin' time, great for a dunk into super-fun liquid funk before getting out of an overcrowded pool. Alright, I was also parroting some of the d'n'b narrative I'd read at the time regarding Hospital Records, but that label's endured remarkably well in the ensuing decade, remaining steadfast in its uplifting manifesto even as different trends come and go.

As for High Contrast, this was his last album, a shame. What, that record a few years ago, with the dubstep and the pointless, weak-sauce collaboration with Tiësto and Underworld? Whatever is this Bizarro Earth you speak of? Does Donald Trump rule your realm?)



IN BRIEF: The soul is in danger of becoming stagnant.

Credit must be given where it is due. Drum ‘n’ bass was in serious danger of growing far too self-serious after the turn of the century, even for itself. Then along comes some young upstart named Lincoln Barrett and, along with the Hospital Records crew, reminded the world the genre can be filled with plenty of uplifting optimistic vibes too. Soaring strings, singing soul sistas, and Robert Owens invaded the realm of jungle militants, and for a while it seemed as though liquid funk would be the future of ‘dee’bee’.

That was half a decade ago [ed: even longer now!]. Obviously the big Hospital take-over didn’t quite occur, but still they carved out their niche and have stayed the course with their sound... and stayed... and stayed... and now that just isn’t enough.

Yes, folks, it’s true. Rumors and buzzes from the underground abound that liquid funk has become played out; is past its prime; in need of a rest; if not, at least some re-invention. The same ol’ formula can only carry a scene for so long before predictable production becomes too common, and this sub-genre of jungle is decidedly drawing nearer to such a period. With two highly regarded albums already under his belt, can Mr. Barrett prove there’s still plenty of life in the girl on his third High Contrast full-length?

Forever And A Day makes a strong argument for the case. With rhythms that gets the heart racing and orchestral swells that set the spirit soaring, this is liquid funk at peak proficiency. In many other forms of music, a lyric like “and the birds are singing pretty little songs” would get snickered out of the scene, but in the hands of High Contrast, he makes it exhilarating. Top notch stuff, my friends.

Nothing else comes close to that track on Tough Guys Don’t Dance, but Barrett shouldn’t be expected to hit a grand-slam every time. However, although each tune he crafts is easily above average, very few of them are a home-run either. It’s fine for a few tracks into the album, but by the time Eternal Optimist and Chances roll along, the template has become far too predictable and lacks the panache that made Forever And A Day such a winner.

The trouble lies in the fact a lot of Lincoln’s tricks are over-familiar now, and he doesn’t do much on this album to shake the formula up. You’d think a producer of his caliber wouldn’t dare be caught going through the motions, yet it honestly does sound like he is with his liquid funk offerings. The r’n’b divas, the soulful crooners (mostly J’Nay in this case), the smooth rolling basslines, the 2-step breakbeats, and the orchestral samples: almost all of it sounds like it could have been produced at any point in his career, and without the care to treat them as something more than just another tune to rinse out by the Hospital Records roster. Fine and dandy for brief one-offs at a club night, sure, but unfortunately rather stale in an album context, especially one’s third.

There are moments where he does deter from the template, and unsurprisingly these tracks are amongst the album’s highlights. Opener If We Ever may have most of liquid funk’s requisite trappings, but instead relies on some old school jungle rhythms which are good fun. Elsewhere, Nobody Gets Out Alive adds a twist to things by making use of a bassline that pounds rather than rolls and some old blues sample that wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on Moby’s Play. The two atmospheric cuts - Tread Softly and The Ghost Of Jungle Past - although quite stuck in the 90s, are lush. As for his fiercer offerings like Sleepless, Metamorphosis, and Pink Flamingos, they’re hit or miss, and ultimately serving as little better than breaks in the liquid funk monotony.

Hn. Reading this back, and it seems like I’m just bitching about liquid funk, when truthfully I do enjoy the stuff. It is, after all, quite uplifting music. However, its mostly singular execution on Mr. Barrett’s third doesn’t offer as much depth as you’d expect given how nifty the surface often presents itself. Still, Tough Guys Don’t Dance is hardly a write-off. The highlights are stellar, the atmospheric detours are pleasant, and tracks like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Everything’s Different are class, if somewhat formulaic.

I’ve heard High Contrast criticized as being drum ‘n’ bass for newbies, which is rather unfair (jump-up still holds the crown for that distinction) but I can see where such critics are coming from. Lincoln’s stuff is very accessible for the uninitiated junglist and would prefer keeping a party active rather than challenge the listener. However, by sticking to such simple tried and tested tactics, his appeal won’t last should you explore the realm of jungle further, as producers with far greater tricks abound. If you have a passing fancy for liquid funk, Tough Guys Don’t Dance will serve you find, but seasoned vets of the scene may be disappointed.

Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2008. © All rights reserved.


ACE TRACKS:
Forever And A Day
Sleepless
The Ghost Of Jungle Past

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