Critical Celebrate 15 Years In Typical Underground Fashion

Posted by Ben on 30th May 2017

Critical’s slogan is Underground Sonics, a short, sharp and snappy tagline that accurately conveys what these guys are about; releasing music perfect for underground spaces and mindsets. The ‘underground’ can be quite a loosely defined term, used to describe everything from trains under the floor to student nights that happen to play a little House, but Critical’s definition is a little more clear. Ashy tones, moody vibes and sounds tailor made for small rooms, loud systems and sweaty bodies.

It’s anniversary time for Kasra’s imprint and as they pass over the 15 year threshold, North London’s den of 170 hedonism has paired their string of celebratory shows with a typically fantastic various artists compilation. Featuring virtually every act on their roster, 15 Years of Critical Music aims to showcase the label’s increasingly iconic corner of drum n bass related music, displaying a breadth of output that’s truly impressive.

Critical have always pushed the halftime side of things, from Sam Binga to Ivy Lab, so it’s no surprise that this VA includes a string of tracks in that vein including two from those mentioned above. Sam Binga’s Show U Something brings together Eva Lazarus’ vocals with his trademark urban hitting twist, as murky undercurrents and pointy synth needles inject the groove necessary for any Binga stepper. Ivy Lab then step in for Amber, taking the sound in a darker direction with usual mechanical precision and foreboding accuracy, key chain synths distorting recognizable hip-hop into a mutation of bassy amalgamation. Young start-up Hyroglifics also joins the downtempo feeding frenzy with Swish, a pile of more jagged synthesis over tidal bass pulses and literal crunchy percussion.  Groovy stuff from the slower side of Critical’s ethos.

This album mostly lands in darker territory but there are two tracks that break the mould, courtesy of Ivy Lab’s Halogenix and Bristol’s Foreign Concept. Both Flames and Breaking Again are wispy bits of liquid-infused vocal construction, and whilst I’m not sure if Halogenix’s choice to employ SOLAH was influenced by her appearance on Emperor’s album last year, it makes sense. As in Made Of Light, her vocals give Flames a sense of constant growth, the progression of sound heading in an as yet uncertain direction which gives the track that never-ending feel. Naomi Olive does an equally impressive job on Breaking Again, a performance tied up by the exquisite collage of rippling synths and featherweight percussion present underneath. Foreign Concept always nails his balance, and Breaking Again is no exception.

The opposite side of the Critical coin belongs to Emperor and The Upbeats, a pair of acts who could knock out an elephant before their morning cup of coffee. There won’t be any sugar either, and the lack of sweetness in their respective outputs is epitomised by their contributions to this VA, Bad Blood and Grasshopper. Emperor’s ability to produce funky yet devastating low ends never gets dull and this one smacks of She Said and Passed Up, a clearly defined but messy blur of rushing low frequencies, promptly switched into a vicious stream of chromatic power for the unbelievable second drop. Grasshopper is my personal highlight from this album and it’s rare for a track of this sort to be exciting in a brand new way, but that’s how much energy it has, an unprecedented onslaught of blackish movement and brittle drums. It doesn’t get much more hyped than this.

The Critical sphere’s newest members have also stepped up with some wicked additions. Signal is the freshest face but you wouldn’t have guessed it, and, like all his productions, Descent shows an understanding of bass manipulation beyond his years. Shyun’s grouping of alien-like percussive hits and foreign bass moans into the earthy Unfold is possibly the most original work on here, and I love the uncomfortable edge it forces the listener to sit astride. It’s an edge not dissimilar to that present on The Mute by Klax, who morphs a strangely eerie sample into a flurry of breaks amidst spiralling dystopic resonance. It’s interesting to see that three of the newest producers have also come up with three of the most unique cuts, so hopefully that’s indicative of drum n bass’ general direction or at the least, Critical’s.

The selection above is only a taster of how widespread across the underground portion of the scene Critical are, and in my opinion there really isn’t a better label for those who consider themselves partial to it. The fact that ten tracks have been mentioned and we’re still missing out music from the likes of Break, Enei, Kasra and Mefjus really hammers home the label’s strength at the moment. Break is back with his usual percussive masterclass, Enei enlists DRS, Mefjus displays his deeper side and Kasra is, of course, fucking Kasra.

Simply put, the 15 Years of Critical VA is a superb mix of influences and styles, all packaged together with Critical’s impeccable professionalism. Buy it from iTunes now.

15 Years of CriticalBreakCritical MusicEmperorForeign ConceptIvy LabKasraKlaxMefjusSam BingaShyunSignalThe Upbeats

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