James Blake, The Bells Sketch

[Hessle Audio]

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I’m not exactly sure how to peg James Blake. But if dubstep professes to be music made for dance floors, then the young British producer almost certainly isn’t making it. His proudly unquantized beats (throbs of crunchy sound more than proper drum-hits) skitter in and out of the mix like confused cockroaches; his melodies, while warm, soulful, and usually ripped from records made in far simpler musical times, float over the proceedings like a minute-old ganja cloud — still pungently present, yet barely there. Despite sounding more than a bit like Untold, who’s championed his productions as labelhead at Hemlock, refashioned as a sleazy lounge act, Blake brings a strangely anthemic quality to productions which otherwise would probably be too experimental (or just downright blazed) for club consumption. Indeed, his latest offering, The Bells Sketch for the seriously in-bloom Hessle Audio label, has already attracted the attention of adventurous jocks like Dub War residents Dave Q and Alex Incyde, who managed to move floors (while simultaneously weirding them out, in a good way) when they each closed out recent sets with the A-side. It’s Blake’s most sophisticated record to date, but that doesn’t mean his dance floor credentials make a whole lot more sense.

What holds Blake’s tunes together is the way his beat just stomps, the awkward rumble of an automaton bounding toward your defenseless village. “The Bells Sketch” has it in spades, but it’s also rather pretty: plaintive chords, weepy vocal flourishes, and bass/treble interplay straight off The Chronic underpin the track’s unwieldy movement, and what results is as much a dirge as a banger. As I mentioned before, I’ve only heard “The Bells Sketch” played out as a closer, and it’d admittedly be a tough one to drop mid-set. But the spooky uncertainty of the introduction would make it just as tantalizing of an opener. On the flip, “Buzzard And Kestrel” finds Blake a bit perkier and more rhythmic, recalling at times some sort of Flying Lotus/Alcachofa-era Villalobos collabo. Off-timbre, squelchy synths rush in during the track’s final third, creating a moment that’s almost surprising enough to warrant a spoiler alert in this review. All in all, it almost steals the show from the A. Mood-wise, “Give A Man A Rod” hazily splits the difference between the first two tracks but never manages to emerge from its bong coma. Despite this brief lapse in craft, The Bells Sketch makes for a standout 12″ — an oddity, sure, and not for any DJ faint of heart, but an extremely worthy listen from a far-out voice you’ll want to give the benefit of the doubt.

braden  on March 16, 2010 at 4:01 PM

great review on such a strange but great record. “flying lotus/alachofa-era villalobos” is absolutely spot on!

DJ_Dom  on March 17, 2010 at 10:35 AM

GOOD HONEST REVIEW. Great producer and some good tracks here but a little too experimental for me – same with Untold.

Blaktony  on March 19, 2010 at 9:33 AM

Good review & on point but, i congradulate him (as well as any one else) on the difference & expierimental.

mayor sizzle  on April 23, 2010 at 1:57 AM

This comment is only about ‘Buzzard & Kestrel’: incredible. The term ‘experimental’ is most certainly relevant in any description of this track. And somehow this track definitely also has an addictive quality. James Blake manages to arrange an array of completely disparate (and unsettling) sounds into a mystifyingly coherent and satisfying whole. I really can’t endorse this track to anyone, partly because I think most people would be annoyed by it. On top of that, I can’t even imagine an appropriate public setting for this song. It’s not relaxing, it’s surely not danceable, it’s not necessarily even easy to listen to. But for personal use, by people that appreciate courage, this track is golden.

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