Commix – Generation EP 2
Words by Matthew Scott
It’s a long time since I’ve sat in front of my screen and keyboard completely lost for words. Dumbfounded, staggered, startled, and absolutely unable to translate the qualities of the music I have been listening to into a textual format. I’m no philosopher, but I think everyone who writes about music understands that there is a certain hopelessness to what we are trying to do. Put simply, we are trying to describe something that is fundamentally indescribable, trying to convey what something sounds like by writing about it, and in doing so trying to transform something aural to something ocular. Sometimes it can work. Particularly in drum and bass, things do sound like buzzsaws or flatulent rectal expulsions or xylophones from time to time. Drum and bass also uses samples, for instance from films, which we can use to convey something about what a tune sounds like: take Chris Su’s ‘Solaris’, which samples heavily from the soundtrack and film of the same name. Other times we can describe the drum break used to give a feel of the percussion. If we’re a bit more knowledgeable about music production we can also talk more specifically about some of the sounds and techniques used. And finally we can use comparisons, writing things like “if you like Tune X by Producer Y you will also be into this, they go along similar lines.”
In other cases though, words fail, and incoherent sentences and punctuation is the inevitable result. Such is the case today. On the 21st of October Metalheadz will be releasing the ‘Generation’ EP 2 from Commix. This is a big deal. Commix, as I’m sure you will know, were a Cambridge trio then duo that came to the attention of the DnB world when they were signed to Metalheadz after a few singles on labels such as Fabio’s Creative Source and Doc Scott’s 31 Records. Instantly, tunes such as ‘Electric’, ‘The Perfect Blue’, and the utterly anthemic ‘Be True’ underscored their status as two of the most innovative minds in DnB. It’s hard to pinpoint what a Commix tune was back then; there seemed to be no overarching ‘sound’ that was definitively recognisable as theirs, but on the other hand it was clear that there were no other artists who could make a tune quite as smooth as they could. Compare the menace inducing ‘Talk to Frank’ and the sleep inducing ‘Underwater Scene’ and you might see what I mean. One thing they definitely did have was a penchant for big, bubbling, all-enveloping basslines – a point I’ll return to. Their rise was capped with the release of ‘Call to Mind’, still one of the most complete and rounded DnB LPs I’ve ever heard, and which was later remixed by the likes of Burial, Pangaea, and A Made Up Sound in Metalheadz’s most eclectic release to date.
After this though, the duo went their separate ways. Both began to dabble in slower tempos: Guy Brewer started releasing techno under his Shifted moniker while George Levings began producing slow, spacious, and unsettling house under the alias Endian. Since then we’ve been drip-fed unreleased Commix tunes from the vaults – culminating in the ‘Dusted’ LP – but it seemed that they had turned permanently away from making DnB. Now, however, it turns out that this is only half true. Earlier in the year we got the ‘Generation’ EP 1, which featured two tracks from the vaults and the long awaited remix of ‘Justified’ by Spectrasoul released on a 12” vinyl. The very naming of this plate as the EP ‘1’ indicated that more was to come, and now, finally, after years of praying, we have the first new Commix material in what must be five years? Six? Whichever. Truth be told, it represents a completely new sound and new approach for Levings, who is reviving the Commix name by himself. As he recently told Resident Advisor, out are the old ways of doing things and in are new bits of hardware and new engineering techniques. And so we are presented with four tracks: three of which will be going onto a vinyl and one of which is a digital bonus.
So, what are they like? This is where my fingers start to hover over the keyboard without any idea what letters to press. Other than the letters that spell the words ‘absolutely amazing’, that is. Quite simply, this is the best EP I’ve heard so far this year, and it is so good that I keep coming back to it and thinking something different, or noticing some new texture or hiss that I hadn’t before, or simply just closing my eyes and feeling blessed that I can listen to such a thing. It begins with ‘Freefall’. Immediately, you know it’s special. Gone are the big beats, bass, and samples of ‘Be True’. They are replaced by what I imagine the Invisible Man would sound like if he was still making tunes now. The percussion is light, slowly paced, with an unorthodox kick-drum pattern and a snare and shuffle pattern located more towards the highs of the tune than most DnB. Beyond that though, it’s the interweaving of the pads, synths, and slow pounds of bass that elevate this tune beyond anything that Good Looking or any of those labels put out. It’s a truly atmospheric experience sitting and listening to this all the way through, time and time again, and the arrangement of the different elements are worthy of ASC – the master of creating this kind of feeling. The tune doesn’t really do much; there are no big drops or fancy little cuts of the percussion at the end of each bar; it just grows and grows and grows and envelops you in this cocoon of perfect ambience, and to be honest it could be another ten or twelve or fourteen minutes long and I bet it would still be absolutely gripping for each of those minutes. It’s bordering on perfect.
Next up is ‘Honey’, which if anything is even more glorious. If you’ve heard the magnificence of the intro to Om Unit’s ‘Adventures in Eden’ you should expect something similar here; it opens with some softly scintillating synths that place you in a cool, dry forest underneath a starry sky in some remote yet peaceful wilderness. The sound design is awe-inspiring. The most ephemeral of voices – so distant you genuinely wonder if you’re imagining them – float around the background of the tune as Commix interlaces any number of gorgeous twinkles throughout. To be honest, when I first pressed play on this I was eagerly expectant of some sort of slow, kick-drum heavy, maybe halftime drop like the kind Kid Drama is so accomplished at. Nope, not a chance. Instead we get this scything break which, at least on paper, should clash horribly with the soundscape introduced in the opening minute or so. Somehow though, it doesn’t – whatever the opposite of polished is Commix has done it to the beats in a way that sort of dials them down and fuzzes them a bit; so even as they scythe and cut themselves along they’re still porous enough to allow that soundscape to ooze through. It’s bloody brilliant, and will have just enough for the dancefloor while remaining subtle and complex enough to sit and listen to over and over again at home without it getting grating.
The BPM begins to ‘freefall’ (sorry) with ‘Behold’, which is a kind of eerie, 160BPM offering that veers more into pure ambient territory than the previous two. An ethereal backdrop absolutely drenched in unnerving atmosphere acts as the canvas on which the rest of the tune is carefully painted. I’ve mentioned him already but to get a feel for the kind of atmosphere I’m trying to describe check out ASC’s ‘Truth Be Told’ and ‘Fervent Dream’ albums, which both lamentingly explore different shades of aural beauty. The difference in ‘Behold’ is we get a very measured, very Headz-y kick-and-snare pattern which, while subtle at first glance, absolutely punches through the ethereality with a controlled force. Much like with ‘Honey’ the balance is spot on; the drums, yes, are hard, but do not dominate proceedings at all. Worthy of a space, perhaps, alongside some of Doc Scott’s more mellow tunes from decades and decades ago. Digital bonus ‘Arplong’ takes things down even further to around 130BPM, exploring similar sounds but in a way that is closer to the Endian mould than the Commix we used to know. I’ve recently been getting acquainted with artists like Route 8, Orson Wells, and Nthng, who basically produce lo-fi house music that sounds like it’s being transmitted to your ears through an aquarium full of blissful marine life. This tune is in the same sort of bracket, and will no doubt cross over into those kinds of circles with a breathtaking ease.
Across the whole release, there are some consistencies that are worth drawing out. The first is the nature of the bass. As I usually do I had a go at mixing these tunes before starting to write anything; firstly to see what they sound like out of my speakers and secondly to try and judge how they stand up in the mix in comparison to other similar tunes. You notice immediately that the bass, particularly in ‘Freefall’ and to a lesser extent across all four, is deliberately understated and restrained; simply one element of the tune as opposed to the roaring, driving low end that accompanies a lot of drum and bass. I feel this is nothing other than a deliberate choice, and it just allows everything else to sing along in equilibrium. I’m again reminded of tunes like ‘The Ephemeris’ by Futurebound, where different notes and tones of bass are inserted at chosen and carefully selected moments in a less-is-more style way. My housemate found this out the hard way when we were mixing ‘Freefall’ – completely by coincidence he loaded up ‘Be True’ to mix into ‘Freefall’, and when he finally got round to changing the basslines over the difference was absolutely staggering. It’s a reflection of the measure, composure, and judgement that has gone into this EP; why rattle a massive bassline underneath just because the ‘B’ in DnB happens to stand for bass? ‘Freefall’ and ‘Honey’ especially are like Isaac Newton’s wet dream, everything equal and balanced, although not this time by the laws of motion, but by the hand of Commix.
A second consistency concerns the fuzzy, lo-fi, ambient sound design that permeates the whole EP. This is most apparent on ‘Arplong’, but across the whole thing there is an opulence and radiance that I tend to associate most consistently with the Canadian label Silent Season and artists such as Segue, Shaded Explorer, and indeed ASC. A kind of painstakingly crafted mixture of pads, atmospherics, synths and field recordings, although this time injected with controlled bass and immaculately structured breaks. It’s something that I find absolutely staggering – the time and effort and most of all patience that must go into creating soundscapes such as these. How many times has Commix listened back to the first minute or so of ‘Behold’, for example, just to ensure that everything is in its place? A tweak here, twiddle of a knob there, listen through again, nope too much, another tweak here, maybe accentuate that a touch…and so on and so forth. It’s the kind of obsessive attention that, apart from artists such as Blocks & Escher, Mako, Om Unit, Sam KDC, ASC, and a handful of others, doesn’t happen too much in drum and bass in my opinion. I may be wrong, but this EP is so richly textured that it makes a lot of the other stuff I’ve bought or listened to lately seem utterly dull and one-dimensional by comparison.
Commix, then, has done it. George Levings has created an EP that even before its release date has become my favourite release of the year. If you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned artists, as well as the Autonomic style sound that Kid Drama and dBridge are continuing to experiment with, it is absolutely essential that you add this to your collection. If you’re not, it is still absolutely essential that you add this to your collection. I also think this is the kind of release that will gain a purchase in the wider dance music scene as well – not only because it’s Commix, and not only because of ‘Arplong’, but just because of the sheer complexity and innovation on display. It is simply wondrous, in a way that you will only grasp by sitting down and listening to it in full with some good headphones. You’ll realise what my words are trying to convey at the very same time you realise how much the EP exceeds those words. And it seems like I’m not the only one to think that. When Metalheadz sent this one over to us, they said the reactions from Commix’s peers were that it was his best work yet. It’s a truism that swivels our attention to the LP that Commix is now working on for Metalheadz. There’s no news on that yet, but until there is, we are safe in the knowledge that we have these four tunes to enjoy.
The Generation EP 2 is out on the 21st of October on Metalheadz, and you can pre-order it direct from the label by clicking here. You can also get it pre-ordered from the usual stockists such as Redeye and Unearthed Sounds.