Skream, Outside The Box


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Every style of music reaches a point where it teeters on the edge of becoming too popular for it’s own good. With hip-hop, popularity only increased it’s creativity (at least for a while); with drum ‘n’ bass, it killed the original and gave rise to garage and it’s descendants. Dubstep is the latest case for this crucible of popularity, with the music reaching the shores of the U.S. from its home in England and gaining a new set of fans in the process. Dubstep remixes are becoming increasingly common (La Roux’s “In For The Kill” getting the Skreamix treatment, as a popular example) and stars like Snoop Dogg and Timbaland have sung its praises (the latter even infamously declaring he invented the genre, to much groaning). It’s somehow appropriate that Skream (aka Ollie Jones), one of the founders of dubstep, is the latest to test the waters for a pop crossover with his sophomore album, Outside The Box. With a long and popular history within the underground community, he is known to be mischievous and sincere and both of those qualities show up in equal measures. There are only a handful of true pop music grabs here, sprinkled in among experimental examinations and bottom-heavy stompers with varying levels of success.

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Backwards pianos combined with rising and falling synths squiggle throughout a beatless space on opener “Perferated.” For a producer of well-loved club music, it’s a brave choice that seems to throw down the musical gauntlet. On contemplative and moody tracks like this, the ambient-dubstep of “Metamorphosis,” and the orchestral “A Song For Lenny,” Skream displays a serious and mature side, focusing on his prowess as a composer. By sprinkling these slower meditations throughout Outside The Box, there is a sense of needing to slow down and take stock. On spacious and classic dubstep compositions like “Fields of Emotion” and “Reflections” (with dBridge & Instra:mental), Skream pushes at the boundaries of melancholy melodies, with “Fields of Emotion” being the most successful. The mournful synths and cavernous halfstep conjures dark memories of early Loefah and DMZ and current synergy with Kryptic Minds and Burial. As for the saddest track on the album, “CPU” charts a computer experiencing critical errors on it’s way to oblivion in the form of a minor chord progression, decaying synths and a lava flow of digital bass. Computer laments are not an uncommon type of track in electronic music, but Skream uses minimal percussion and vocals to achieve this particular CPU’s demise.

By contrast, high-energy rollers such as “Listening To The Records On My Wall” and “The Epic Last Song” skip back in history past 2-step and UK garage to the heady days of Metalheadz drum ‘n’ bass, even while updating the “Amen” breaks with catchy synth melodies and rave-inspired breakdowns. The tongue-in-cheek title of “The Epic Last Song” falls slightly short as the song never quite reaches the euphoria of the types of album-ending songs to which it alludes. The largest and most insistent track on the album, “Wibbler,” eschews both the contemplative and the retro sounds for a modern slice of wobbling devastation. This type of chainsaw bass “arena” dubstep is cutting a path through many clubs throughout the world to varied reactions. One thing is for sure, this track is mean and loud and would have a tough time finding an audience on the radio.

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When playing with pop music archetypes, Skream dabbles in hip-hop with Murs, electronic ballads with Sam Frank, vocal-led UK garage and whispy electro-pop with La Roux. “8 Bit Baby” folds in skeletal hip-hop with high-pitched skweee melodies and Murs hyping the bouncy collaboration. It’s a slightly goofy track that charms its way through the lack of progression and minimal lyrics. One of the most successful pop explorations on Outside The Box is “Where You Should Be” featuring heavily effected vocals from Sam Frank. Everything in this track works together to provide a wistful arena sized pop ballad, from the high-pitched melodies dovetailing with the air-tunnel vocals and the lower register bass line weaving throughout the drum kicks. “How Real” features Freckles in a cut-up tribute while a Jocelyn Brown sample leads “I Love The Way.” These two strive the hardest for radio playability, the latter ultimately being more successful and exciting with its pummeling beat and majestic synthetic orchestra that take off into a gallop at the climax. When combining his impeccable production with vocalists Skream finds a way to push them slightly off-kilter, whether it’s with playful melodies or intense effects. Even while striving for pop accessibility on Outside The Box, Skream maintains a prominent foot in the history of dubstep by showcasing his skills and developing all facets of club music songwriting, ultimately making for a complicated and detailed album.

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