Mercury vs Neptune Part 5: Kit Downes Trio vs Ikonika

Here’s the thing with this one. Kit Downes Trio’s ‘Golden’ isn’t on Spotify, and is also apparently not to be downloaded anywhere. Seriously. I even stumbled across a web-forum seemingly devoted to providing free illegal download links for albums, including every one of the Mercury Shortlist, except… ‘Golden’. The obvious answer, I hear you say, is that I should just buy the album, but sadly I have little money to spend on music. And if I did, there is a very large pile of CDs I would love to buy for my own personal pleasure, rather than for research purposes. So I will have to make do with what I could find.

The only full songs I could locate from this album were from videos on Youtube, and this too was limited to just two tracks. I will hence be assuming that live renditions of ‘Jump Minzi Jump’ and ‘Homely’ are fully representative of the rest ‘Golden’. Sorry Kit Downes and co, but I haven’t the monies for research jazz.

‘Jump Minzi Jump’ has a nice rhythm in it’s piano as well as it’s rhythm section. A very nice opening before long moves into a slightly improvised sounding section where the piano drops out for a while, then returns with some low notes. I’m not going to go into vast detail on every part of the track, but eventually the main melody returns to close the track. It does seem a little bit of a waste to write a pretty good melody when you only use it for about a quarter of a track’s length, but hey; thats jazz!

‘Homely’ meanwhile, is more restrained. It starts off with a few minutes of solo piano, before some lightly brushed cymbals and lightly tapped drums join, along with gentle bass. Things slowly grow in energy and intensity, as well as the the speed of the playing, until a crescendo is reached, and the band calm down again, then close.

To my un-jazz-trained ears, Kit Downes Trio make fairly pleasant piano jazz. Sometimes they slide into improvisation, making them maybe not quite right for background music, but the style and tone basically suits that scenario. I’m not very good at hearing technical ability in musicians, but I presume these guys are all very talented with their instruments. But regardless of that, is this album actually that great? From what I’ve heard, no, not really. It’s good, and pleasant and everything, but does it really do anything to stand out from thousands of other piano jazz groups? As far as I can tell, no. This makes it hard to see ‘Golden’ as anything more than the annual ‘Token Jazz’ album in the Mercury shortlist. At least previous Jazz tokens, like Portico Quartet, have been interesting and kind of innovative, earning their place in the year’s best albums. This one, however, did little for me. It just isn’t that special!

I am far from an expert on Dubstep. For plenty of time I worked under the assumption that it was just a kind of semi-novelty music that quested to find as many variations on the one note, womp-womp-womp, predictable drop, buzzing sound, sample-from-a-cockney-in-a-popular-film formula as possible. And they didn’t seem to find much variety either. Two of my friends are largely responsible for this, as they liked to demonstrate the latest, ‘filthiest’ tune they had found to me. I was sometimes amused, but not particularly enthused.

But more recently, I have realised that there is more to dubstep than this. Quite a bit more actually. There is a world away from ‘Filth’, and I have been led there mainly by ‘dis-integration’ and ‘jimitheexploder’ on Drowned in Sound (thanks!), as well as bits of Burial, (particularly his ‘Moth’ collabaration with Four Tet) and Joy Orbison. There are also many various styles that dubstep has mixed with, meaning that a lot of stuff is sort of dubstep, sort of something else, but I don’t think it really matters all that much to be honest. Basically there’s a lot going on under the umbrella term of dubstep, and that’s surely something to be pleased with. Better than endless stale repetitions, for sure. I haven’t yet looked particularly far into ‘interesting dubstep’ (a lazy term I’m using to differentiate it from the boring music I previously knew), but I am now aware that it exists. Great!

Now enough about genre, and more about music. Ikonika has been releasing tracks since 2008, but this album, ‘Contact, Love, Want, Have’, is her debut. It is also one of relatively few full length albums released by dubstep producers, partly because such a club/DJ based culture tends to lead towards individual, mixable tracks rather than albums. So does ‘Contact, Love, Want, Have’ make a good album, rather than just a series of tracks?

There are certainly recurring themes. Ikonika seems to be a fan of videogames; some of the track titles, such as ‘Ikonoklast (Insert Coin)’, ‘Continue?’, ‘Look (Final Boss Stage)’, and ‘Red Marker Pens (Good Ending)’ suggest a sort of narrative to the album, or at least a progression of sounds. These tracks are pleasantly appropriate to their titles; you could imagine them being the title screen, or the boss battle etc. in an arcade game from 15 years ago. A lot of the album does sound like old videogame music merged with dubstep’s sub-bass and two-step beat. I mean this wholly as a compliment by the way, as it isn’t ripping off these sounds, but doing new things with them and adapting them to the dubstep style. Unlike some dubstep (good as well as bad), there is a lot going on in this music; lots of synth sounds, and bright ones too, reflecting the fun sounds of vintage games rather than dark South London streets. Someone, possibly Ikonika herself, has said that the synths on this record sometimes work as a vocalist might; these synths are singing, and no voices are really required where they are present.

As I’ve said, this is not moody dubstep, and it is also not out and out ‘go crazy’ dubstep either. It is colourful, and has the nodding two-step rhythms required to move to, but certainly works very well on headphones or on the move (I can’t comment on how this sounds in clubs, but I can see it working). It is fairly upbeat, but there is melancholy emotion here (‘R.E.S.O.L’, ‘Heston’ and more). A bit of range is of course always a bonus, and it ensures that ‘Contact, Love, Want, Have’ has depth, as well as just sounds to move to. Good good.

A favourite part of this record for me is the duo of ‘Yoshimitsu’ (named for the Soul Caliber character no doubt) and ‘Fish’, both of which feel very wide and expansive. I first listened to these whilst driving a while after sunset, and seeing clusters of industrial lights on a large plain under a pale, darkening sky was a perfect fit. This level of atmosphere is miles away from anything that might be deemed ‘filthy’, and hearing these two tracks in that context was what properly sold me on Ikonika and this album. Great synth-landscapes that you can immerse yourself in.

There is some order to the tracks on this album. Generally, they grow more housey/danceable and less spacey as the album goes, following, I suppose, the structure of a videogame, with the music getting more energetic to accompany the harder difficulty. Along with the ‘Insert Coin’ and ‘Final Boss Stage’, this gives some structure and progression, and it’s always good to see some thought go into a records structure. Still, this a solid hour of dubsteppy stuff, and I personally found the similar rhythms and drums a bit wearing over this time, so maybe not one to listen to in one go. But all these tracks are solid, and there is some structure, so I would still say that it works as an album.

So I like it! I’ve actually found myself listening to these Ikonika tracks a lot since I got them, and enjoying them muchly too. I shall carry on with this record, and will probably delve further into the wide waters of Dubstep in the future. Ikonika has made a good starter; maybe you would like to try too?

Both these artists are operating in genres just off the mainstream, jazz and dubstep. It’s good that both are being recognised by these two prize shortlists, but a shame that only one seems to actually be treading new ground. Kit Downes Trio are, as I say, good, but they don’t seem to be innovating or being all that interesting; this music could have been produced 50 or 60 years ago. Ikonika meanwhile, is doing new things, and interesting things, and it is a slight pity that the Mercury prize picked the wrong ‘leftfield’ genre/album to shortlist. Still, this doesn’t detract from the fact that Ikonika’s music is good stuff, so enjoy!

Mercury: 1 / Neptune: 4

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2 Responses to Mercury vs Neptune Part 5: Kit Downes Trio vs Ikonika

  1. Bob Dowell says:

    What are you an expert in?

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