director's cut version, Spin, November 1997
by Simon Reynolds
Its day in the British media limelight past, jungle is now in disarray. Riven by schisms--the white industrial sado-masochismo of techstep versus the populist boisterousness of jump up--the scene has lost much of its black audience to yet another new London sound: speed garage, soulful house music turbo-boosted with sub-bass and rude-boy ragga samples. Meanwhile, increasingly divorced from the dancefloor and its dissensions, album-oriented drum’n’bass (jungle’s respectable cousin) is firmly established as an art form and industry in itself, winning a pop audience that has never experienced the music in its proper context of DJ rewinds and MC chatter.
Leading the pack of impending major label debuts (Adam F, Dillinja, Krust, 4 Hero, Source Direct, to name a few) Roni Size’s New Forms is to '97 what Timeless was to '95 and Logical Progression to '96. It’s this year's consensus electronica album, the double-disc magnum opus garlanded with critical acclaim and hyped with the dubious sales-pitch "if you only buy one jungle album this year....". Roni Size and his Bristol-based Reprazent clan (DJ Die, Krust, Sov) have even won the UK’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize--a seal of approval that will doubtless doom jungle as outsider chic. Some scene insiders are already complaining that the fusion-flavored New Forms is mere coffee table jungle-lite.
But then white bohemians (myself included) have never truly grasped why the likes of LTJ Bukem glimpse utopia in the jazz-funk of Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers, why Goldie flips out for the fuzak of The Yellowjackets and mid-Eighties Miles Davis. New Forms is a timely reminder that elegance can be a form of rebellion for the black working class (not just straightforwardly upwardly mobile aspiration). From Earth Wind and Fire and Chic to today's G-funk and nu-R&B, the regal panache and sheer slickness of sound communicate a kind of defiance, a refusal of your allotted place in the social pyramid. Like Notorious BIG/playa rap's commodity fetishism (Hillfiger, Cristal, Rolexes, Hennesy, Lexus et al), New Forms’ sonic luxury --stand-up bass, lush strings and jazzed cadences--proclaim: "Nothing's too good for us".
Yet often when electronic musicians attempt a synthesis of sequenced sound with "musicality" ("real" vocals, "live" playing), the result is an embarassing mish-mash; witness the worst bits of Timeless. If New Forms mostly escapes that dire fate, it's because Size/Reprazent are minimalists where Goldie is a maximalist (I quail at the prospect of the G-man’s forthcoming 45 minute track recorded with a 30-piece orchestra). Stepped in the
The first disc of New Forms contains all the "big tunes", as well as the most overt nods towards jazz: the double bass driven "Brown Paper Bag", the title track with its tongue-twistingly sibilant scat-rap from Bahamadia, and the gorgeous singles "Heroes" and "Share The Fall," both graced by the torch-song croon of Onalee). "Share The Fall" isn't as good a song as "Heroes", but it's better jungle. Singing inside your flesh, the beat is the melody, its rolling tumble of rapid-fire triplets making you step fierce like a bebop soldier.
Disc Two of New Forms is more cinematic and soundtrack-to-life oriented, achieving a widescreen feel and Technicolor sheen rivaled only by Spring Heel Jack. "Trust Me", for instance, sounds like it might be woven out of offcuts from Dudley Moore's symphonic jazz score for the Sixties movie Bedazzled. Truer to jungle’s anonymous funktionalism, the tracks on Disc Two strip away song-structures and "proper" vocals to reveal a music of lustrous details. Drum & bass is an engineer's art, oriented around specifications and special effects, timbres and treatments. What you listen for is the sculpted rustle and glisten of hi-hat and cymbal figures, the contoured plasma of the bass, the exquisitely timed placement of horn stabs and string cascades. You thrill to the music's murderous finesse--intricacies and subleties designed to enhance the ganjadelic mind-state but which are so nuanced and three-dimensional that they stone you all by themselves.
After techstep’s explosive psychosis and dirty distortion, New Forms offers implosive anxiety and obsessive-compulsive cleanliness of production. Tracks like the eerie, menthol-cool "Hot Stuff" modulate your metabolism like the impossibly refined neurochemical engineering and designer drugs of the next century. New forms, for sure--but in Roni Size/Reprazent’s music, the clash between the ghettocentric exuberance of the breakbeats and the opulent arrangements of the studio also forges new emotions: tense serenity, suave unease, fervent ambivalence.