Few styles of techno received as much attention or gained as much popularity as jungle, or drum and bass. Characterized by incredibly fast breakbeats and a darker, more urban sound, drum and bass started in the clubs and slowly filtered into the mainstream. The style finally broke through with the release of Roni Size’s New Forms. New Forms was a commercial success, bringing the drum and bass sound fully into the mainstream. Now, Size and his partner, DJ Die, released a second drum and bass album under the name Breakbeat Era, Ultra Obscene (1500 Records). Unfortunately, the album shows how watered down underground music can get when it becomes big.
From the name of the album and song titles like Rancid, Anti Everything and Our Disease, it looks like Size is trying to move away from the mainstream success of his last album and head back underground. The opening Past Life certainly has a darker tint to it. Deep, booming synth-noises blend into fast breakbeats that create an atmosphere.
Unfortunately, it’s an atmosphere Size can’t sustain. Instead of moving toward an underground sound, the music on Ultra Obscene is even more commercial. And, because of this, the album becomes the audio equivalent of wallpaper. None of the songs stand out. In fact, it is difficult to tell when one song stops and the next begins. It isn’t because the songs blend well. It’s because they all sound alike. Fast beats, some electronic touches and singer Leonie Laws’ bland vocals merge into one beige mix.
Although techno is not known for singing, drum and bass artists have used singers to fill out their albums and give them a more human, warm sound. Goldie, on the classic jungle album, Timeless, uses his vocalists in this way. A warm rich alto sings over the beats and music. The effect draws you in, making the music more than just something to dance to in a club. It’s clear Size is trying to use Laws in this way, but he achieves the opposite effect. After a while, Laws’ voice, as he enunciates every word, becomes like nails on a chalkboard and drives you away. The few tracks that don’t have Laws’ vocals are much more enjoyable to listen to.
A few warm touches on the album revert back to New Forms. Size uses real instrumental sounds to accent the songs. The title track has a live bass sound that gives it a jazzy feel. Late Morning has an electric guitar intro before turning into dark, paranoid beats and wails of slightly out-of-tune synthesizers. These touches add more warmth to Ultra Obscene than Laws ever could.
But small touches do not make a great album. With rare exceptions like Goldie, drum and bass is always going to be a sound more for the late-night party than for home listening. Size may try to change that, but he ends up toning down the elements that make drum and bass interesting to listen to.