Scuba, Personality

[Hotflush Recordings]

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We music critics love a great narrative, and Scuba has long provided us with a pretty good one. Jumping ship from London to Berlin at a moment when the dance music both cities were famous for seemed to be treading water, the producer otherwise known as Paul Rose was at the vanguard of the sort of stylistic dot-connecting that’s been happening ever since. Rose may have brought bassweight to Berghain in the form of his iconic Sub:stance parties, but the club obviously rubbed off on him, too: while his first two Scuba albums, A Mutual Antipathy and Triangulation, stood basically halfway between dubstep and techno, and his music since has taken big steps toward the latter. As the summer of 2011 drew to a close, we could only call Rose a dubstep artist — or even a “bass music” artist — by association. But for an artist who’d basically spent his whole career in transition, Scuba remained Scuba throughout, carrying a certain dejectedness — the “Scuban frown,” if you will — through whatever stylistic template he happened to be working in.

Then, as the leaves in the northern hemisphere ever so appropriately began to turn, “Adrenalin” dropped, and our tidy narrative drew to a close: Scuba proved dubstep and techno to be eminently compatible, but how exactly do we reconcile grimly mutant techno with trance? It presented dance music’s chattering classes with a love-it-or-hate-it moment, but even if you couldn’t get behind the potentially off-limits stylistic cues “Adrenalin” so wholeheartedly embraced, you’d find it hard to deny the production chops it put on display. Famously weary of music journalists, Rose ruptured our otherwise tidy Scuba schema, both by dodging the narrative and by giving us an EP seemingly tailor-made to cause a good deal of critical consternation. Of course I’m not suggesting Rose produced “Adrenalin” solely to muddle things for music writers — that would exemplify the sort of journalistic excess that tends to light up Scuba’s Twitter feed — but I’m certainly suggesting it was a pleasant side effect.

There’s no “getting back on track” to be had on Personality, Scuba’s third full-length. Rather, the record highlights the narrative that’s been hiding in plain sight: Scuba has steadily been nurturing an almost otherworldly studio prowess, one that reaches its apex here and which seems to bloom in the sort of awesomely huge moments that seem so at odds with his grim productions of yore. Take, for example, “The Hope,” the album’s first single, which he packs to its breaking point with buzzing, siren-like synths. When the track cathartically crumbles, we’re caught in a blast we’re not sure there are clubs big enough for. Yet no sound feels out of place or squeezed out of intelligibility: it’s a wonder of sound design and studious mixing, and I’m not sure I can name another producer I’d entrust with pulling this sort of thing off. Throughout, Scuba injects complexity into the outwardly innocuous: beneath “July”‘s bright chords sits an endlessly modulating framework of rhythmic eccentricities; unexpectedly sensitive drumming comfortably surrounds a grinding, dissonant bass line on “Gekko”; even “Cognitive Dissonance,” the sort of big-room drum-and-bass counterpart to “Adrenalin,” has plenty going for it in its immersive, bottom-of-the-ocean sonics.

Yet as many tools as Scuba had up his sleeve in the sessions that brought forth Personality, the album comes off as strangely unfinished — not in form, but in feel. When Scuba asks in his opening monologue, “Why should I bother to listen when you stand up and speak?” he doesn’t seem to be bullying listeners so much as justifying his own project: a commitment to craft is ultimately what makes artists last in this industry, not some vague sense of artistic purity. But there’s a hollow ringing to some of Scuba’s choices here you can’t quite EQ out: structurally and melodically, so many of these tracks seem built from the same template. And though this critic has a mighty high tolerance for cheese, I find no pleasure in “The Hope”‘s overly vapid vocal hook. As Rose pointed out in a recent video interview, his material a la “Adrenalin” shouldn’t be read as some kind of Foucaultian discourse, but pop doesn’t necessarily preclude substance. The moments that unexpectedly make for some of Personality‘s best — the urban field recording that runs underneath “Cognitive Dissonance,” the awesomely confrontational minute of vinyl hiss at the end of the album opener — are those that betray something of the man behind the digital audio workstation. Paul Rose may be at the top of his game as a producer, but Personality indicates he’s still growing as an artist. And weaknesses aside, it gives us plenty to look forward to.

simba  on March 15, 2012 at 7:44 AM

Well somehow Foucaultian discourse made it into a Scuba review. How disappointing. Much like Scuba’s output of late. ‘Thank U’, ‘Harpoon’ and hell, even ‘Frisco’ were all better than anything on here.

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