Review: James Blake

Jack Broughan gets his head around the debut album from the “next big thing”, James Blake.

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been following James Blake since he put out his first release; Air & Lack Thereof on Hemlock records but it certainly confused me to find his CYMK EP while I was trawling through R&S records back catalogue a few months back.

Nor will I pretend that I got a press copy of the album: I downloaded the leak, like any good poor student. However, finding Blake’s music on a Belgian Techno label completely threw me.

As it turns out Blake has been putting out music since 2009 starting with the aforementioned; Air & Lack Thereof 12”.  His first EP The Bells Sketch is much different to his new LP, more electronic but still retains echoes of his production.

The Bells Sketch has the same soul melodies but set to a more thumping walking beat. The drums are slightly off-kilter like a run of the mill dubstep record but nearly un-danceable.  It rumbles from beat to beat neatly unwinding with pleasing chords and a bass that sounds like something straight out of The Chronic.

CMYK and Klaveirweke expand on this sound talking it into a weird middle ground between dubstep UK Garage and electronica.  Both EPs draw on Blake’s concoction of dubstep, R&B, Hip hop and electronica. CMYK opens stuttering percussion samples layered with a sample from a Kelis track.

One of the most glaringly obvious things about CMYK and Klavierweke is Blake’s willingness to experiment. ‘I’ll Stay’, on face value, sounds like a Flying Lotus style chill out track but the subtle rhythmic chopping and cutting give the track energy that comes completely out of the blue.

Similarly ‘Tell Her Safe’ on Klaveirweke begins with a muffled, reverbed vocal with a barely distinguishable group vocal chant. This coupled with the understated yet rhythmic centre piece makes the track sound like a Burial remix of a Bon Iver track.

While his work as a producer may already be exciting Blake’s album is by far the most interesting piece of work he has put out to date. The album begins with ‘Unluck’, an almost frail vocoded vocal accompanied by stuttering drum samples and the occasional crunchy sample thrown in for good measure. The track builds and dissolves naturally fragile in places and yet thrilling when Blake changes the dynamic of the song.

Although simple, Blake’s music is minimalist, using small nuances to bring tracks alive. On ‘Limit to Your Love’ (a cover of the Feist track by the same name) Blake’s addition of a trembling almost sub-sonic bass line is a master stroke. The sound is so subtle, without headphones it would be easy to miss but once you know it’s there it becomes a focal point of the track.

Similarly the rests in the track are perfectly timed, just long enough to have you yearning for the chord progression to roll back in. ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ is one of the albums outstanding moments. Beginning with a haunting vocal that repeats “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them” backed by soul tinged piano lead that contorts the original sound of the track into a melodic and completely unexpected twist.

The album takes a step away from the strictly electronic production of CMYD and Klaveirweke opting for a more musician rather than producer role. Before this release Blake had been repeatedly touted as “post-dubstep” or billed as some sort for game changer for the genre. And, while this is clearly not the case, what has emerged is something altogether more exciting.

This self-titled effort isn’t filled with dance floor bangers and sub heavy club classics but has managed to create an original and exciting voice and style. The album is minimalist and soulful but sonically brave enough to sound exciting and peerless. Blake’s electronic efforts bear the hallmarks of his style, the prophet modular synth and studious attention to detail but are altogether different in their own right. Whatever happens next it looks like Blake has all the bases covered.

James Blake’s debut James Blake is released on February 7th.

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