Various Artists – The Low Road EP
Words by Tony Ferguson
You know when you’re sat in a really comfy car, it’s running quiet and smooth but the light g-forces still move you around with a controlled energy that you can’t see? That’s pretty much what you get from the subject of today’s review: mellow vibes with energy, subtle g-forces pushing and pulling you at the same time as soft and smooth pianos let you sink further into the sofa. The ‘Low Road’ EP is absolutely my kind of summer vibe. Keep your overpowering vocals covering up the music and hold off the ‘big drop’, for these things are irrelevant, obtrusive and nowhere to be seen on this EP. So sit back in that comfy chair, turn up the volume and fucking smile from ear to ear. Enjoy the journey. I know I did.
Let’s begin with the title track, ‘The Low Road’ produced by Kasper. With it’s saxophones and gated Rhodes, it’s like taking a ride in my old friend’s 700bhp Dodge Challenger. How is that you might ask? Fuck knows really. All I know is that was a lot of fun and so is this tune. There’s just something seductive about a saxophone and it’s somehow a perfect match for some low riding bass. And speaking of bass…is that a fucking double bass? Oh yes! This is a tune that just keeps on giving and I really cannot ask for any more than that. As the longest track on this release, sitting a little over the six minute mark, there is proof that time truly does fly when you’re having fun, and I am indeed having fun with this tune. Let’s maybe drop the needle back to the start shall we?
As I listen deeper I try to pick apart the sounds: admittedly not my greatest skill, but there’s so much going on I want to try and figure it all out. The xylophone is awesome, a cool instrument very often associated with ’70s movie soundtracks. As great as it sounds here what catches my ear is the reverb on the tail of said xylophone. I may be wrong BUT it sounds like the reverb has been pushed to an audio channel and then looped, maybe a little processing on there too, but I love it and it sounds wicked. It’s a technique often used to create what’s called a ‘drone’, and it really adds yet another layer to the evolving sounds travelling around behind the main meat and potatoes of the track. One last thing I really love about ‘The Low Road’ is that at no point does it pander or slip into the usual build-drop-build (maybe drop again, and again) pattern that can sometimes get a little stale. It’s something I like to call a rider; get a beat going, throw in some bass and obviously hear some sublime sax then just ride. If I need a break in the energy I can hit pause, because modern technology, that’s why.
The next one is called ‘Joy’ by Satl, and what a ‘Joy’ it is. I love that hook, and this may well in fact be my current pick of 2015, at least from the tracks I attempt to combine words about for the lovely readers on One Hour One DJ. There’s so much energy in the percussion and at the same time a certain subtlety. It’s not brash and harsh (which can be great), and it’s not even too upfront in the mix. I think it’s the combination of ‘the really high stuff’ (do pardon the technical terminology there..), but there’s great energy and movement sitting above those hi-hats. And speaking of hi-hats there’s a sick sound set at work here. It sounds like a shaker sample, perhaps mixed with the initial ‘click’ you get from a drummer hitting a ride cymbal, but the panning and levels are so perfect it becomes harder to tell as the rest of the excellent percussive elements roll in… and then like a cat you get distracted by a beautifully filtered percussion break filling out the mid range frequencies, positioned perfectly between the tasty highs and the kick.
All the boxes, in other words, are checked here: tight low end on the kick, variation on the snare, gorgeous hats and tops, combining live elements and samples all with some superb separation in the mix, positivity overload! If I had to be critical and I kind of do, the only area where I’m left wanting is the sub. On multiple plays and especially next to ‘We Could Always’ and ‘Love So True’ the bottom end just feels a bit lacking. An aesthetic choice no doubt, and as an artist I totally respect the decision, however the bass is an integral part of what we love and it could be more upfront in ‘Joy’. A little more saturation, a little more width over the 200hz range perhaps. Be aware that I am being a dick at this point, really picking at things for the purpose of not being a yes man. This track is fucking awesome as it is and this is why we have a BASS knob on the mixer. Or, just load up another deck with some heavy low end on it and dry/wet that sucker. Job done.
Sampling and filtering is DnB at it’s core, and it’s used to great effect in ‘We Could Always’, but it’s here where I find myself taking a step back to a more critical standpoint. This tune is a collaboration between the aforementioned Satl and Kasper, and while all the elements are in place and the final product is tight, I can’t help feeling like the snare ghost notes can become a bit repetitive. Yes the pattern is wicked and fits well with the theme, but the variation is just too subtle and can become a little distracting. As we look at repetition, the foundation of music for the most part, I find there’s some looping and delays that are taking this track away from the somewhat ethereal standard on display up to this point. Attribute this to a personal thing, or maybe that fact that a normal person would play this in a mix, or put the EP on and listen through it once or twice and not five times before having any coffee.
However, after writing the previous paragraph, I came back to this tune a different day after I’d had the appropriate level off caffeine, and I found myself tuning in particularly to the impressive lower end of proceedings. The sub-bass is crazy good; wicked pattern, some tight compression to keep those levels in check, and definitely well saturated. There’s an upfront vibe here that wouldn’t be out of place at a ‘sound system’ party, and for sure getting the pleasure of witnessing ‘We Could Always’ over some fucking huge speaker stacks would induce the tapping of one’s toes and such, this I am certain.
The first tune on the EP but the final one in my words is called ‘Love So True’, by Scott Allen and Jrumhand. There’s a lovely intro on this one as has been the theme throughout this EP. Nice vocal touch, adding atmosphere rather than annoyance; Delays falling into reverbs riding on rhythms. I really like this use of live percussion elements, which seriously makes a massive impact. Just hearing the subtlety of a hand held shaker or the drumstick touching the edge of a cymbal is wonderful, and I love hearing the variations in the snare hits. There’s a lot of immersion here and the combination of live and sampled programming with the classic weighty DnB bottom end just makes this easier to put on repeat and listen to over and over again.
This is for sure my top pick for bass on this release, really full with just enough spread. It has the kind of bottom end that will fill a room and seems to sit really well with the piano: something about the processing and automation just seems to fuse the two elements into one. All the while the kick seems to have its own layer of sub and yet it still cuts through front and centre with real nice effect. That sublime ride and snare combo, which uses some extremely human variation (just listen and you will get me), adds this transcendent level of authenticity and depth that I didn’t even realise I was craving until I’d listened to this EP several times over. Everything, every element, all the small pieces and large pieces alike, just seem to fit together: like Lego or my old Minecraft house, three floors, glass ceiling and a moat, it was awesome. I guess I’m saying that all the individual parts are incredible and then they merge, transforming into something even bigger, better and truly elevated.
I feel like I should start my closing comments by saying thank you. All of the producers here have indeed made my week a bearable one, nay an enjoyable one to say the least, and for this I am grateful. This EP is an all out pleasure to listen to, fun from start to end and start again. I find that we as producers, artists, writers or whatever creative types are (hopefully) reading this can take ourselves a bit too serial, like super serial. For sure we have to stand firm next to our creations, as they are part of us are they not? Sometimes though, we can let our guard down, just a little and greatness can be allowed in, I believe that greatness is right here the form of ‘The Low Road’ EP.
A producer and DJ whom I respect greatly (Distance) once said in an interview “if you wanna be a DJ and be successful, be brave, be a brave DJ”. This is true of, at least in my opinion, many forms of art and expression. To create you have to be brave, let your guard down (from time to time) and allow the vibes to flow. What the fuck does this have to do with The Low Road EP? Perhaps nothing but it’s food for though is it not? Put differently, in a way, creativity and expression flow vehemently throughout ‘The Low Road’ EP. Scott Allen, Jrumhand, Kasper, and Satl have all produced a feeling, an expression of themselves that is both brave and without barriers. So let your guard down, get some headphones and love the shit out of this EP.
The Low Road EP is out on the 6th of July on Fokuz, and you can pre-order a copy direct from them by clicking here, or you can get the release from Juno or all the usual UK outlets too if you’d prefer.