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Scuba - Personality


It’s either a talent or an affliction, it can be very tricky to tell the difference. ‘Glutted’ music, Simon Reynolds has disparagingly called it; music that is produced out of the heavy absorption of diverse influences that is the natural result of hyper-networked listening. The extent to which an artist’s voice emerges from the ensuing clamour is increasingly considered a measure of their ability and it’s an issue at the heart of the new Scuba album, Paul Rose’s third under that moniker for his own incredibly influential Hotflush label. If the album is limited in its diversity to a palette of electronic music from the past twenty years, it is nonetheless exhaustive in exploring that remit.

It opens with a blunt call-to-arms, a manifesto of sorts, delivered (presumably) by the artist himself in a pitched-down monologue: “We are all unique. Or are we? Most people are fucking boring to be honest.” It’s a gesture that fulfils its own prophecy in that it recalls a similar moment on Orbital’s 1994 album Snivilisation where a sampled antipodean voice asks, “Are we unique? Are we something utterly special in the universe, or are we an example of many many civilisations that have emerged, many many different life-forms?” Re-iterations like these abound: Personality is a kind of quantum superposition of an album, where all the possibilities of the dance music continuum, with all its life-forms from all its civilisations, suddenly exist simultaneously. And so breakbeats clatter against rigid 909s, modal piano chords slide over quasi-trance synths, indecisive divas cry ‘take me up’ and ‘I’ll bring you down’, all swirling in mists of reverb that leave you swimming furiously against the current to keep up. ‘I go under’, claims a voice in ‘Ignition Key’ – and perhaps this clumsy aqueous metaphor  for stylistic immersion goes some way to explain Rose’s chosen pseudonym.

The anxiety of influence is disconcertingly strong: to my ear, Orbital are a recurring reference but not the only one. ‘Dsy Chn’ reimagines Coldcut’s ‘Timber’ through the smudged lens of Incunabula. ‘July’, as gloriously sun-drenched as it suggests, pays homage to the grand tradition of bouncy acid basslines and meandering synth melodies, from ‘Pacific State’ through Reload’s ‘Ptysch’ to Lone’s recent ‘Once In A While’. ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ and ‘NE1 BUTU’ bring the hardcore vibes, the former with stilted ‘Think’ breaks and clouds of reese bass, the latter evoking a more nebulous SL2. Even the spirit of breaks and – faint-praise damnation indeed – cusp-of-the-millennium progressive house is convincingly realised on ‘Action’ and ‘Gekko’. The whole thing’s unashamedly executed, with all the clichés of euphoria (epic chords, breakdowns, build ups, tweaked out filter cut-offs, ‘oohs’ and ‘babys’) present and correct, exactly where they should be. All in all, hardly an inspiring recipe for enunciating a sense of ‘personality’.

And yet…

The album manages to rise above mere pastiche by making a virtue of its source material, becoming evocative rather than just derivative. Though it openly shuns tastefulness, Personality doesn’t simply regurgitate its influences. Rose punctuates and foregrounds them with field recordings (typically of opening doors and latches), ‘rips’ in the digital fabric (throughout ‘Gekko’, for example), and the ubiquitous post-Burial crackle. All of which have the effect of distanciation: they historicise the reference points whilst simultaneously announcing the contemporaneousness of the music itself.

‘Maybe we should take a trip’, offers one sample in the middle of ‘NE1 BUTU’. By the end of that track, however, one feels like a slightly more adventurous route might have been chosen. But for that one occasion, Personality does not disappoint structurally, either in terms of its well-proportioned tracks or its stylistic presentation as a whole. There is even something of a leitmotif that ensures a sense of unity: most of the melodic phrases open with a falling three-note fragment (a semitone and then a short leap, to be precise), in a technique that breeds familiarity across the album itself, as well as within the tradition it implies. Perversely, lead single ‘The Hope’ is the weakest track of the collection; a functional dancefloor track featuring the producer reciting a list of qualities that he has, we understand, ‘got’ –  including ‘style’, ‘grooves’, ‘taste’, ‘sex’, ‘lies’, and the eponymous ‘hope’ – that falls somewhat flat. We ‘get’ the tongue-in-cheek reference but the whole thing just comes across a bit too Fedde le Grand for my liking.

The album closes with some backmasked vocals that bring us, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, back to its introduction. By reversing the track we can again hear Rose, this time concluding ‘we are all unique, thousands of different variants feeding in to making each of us who we are. But’, he supposes, ‘if you could choose one aspect, one facet of your personality…’ and then coherence is lost beneath the swelling reverberations of the rest of the track, bubbling back into existence. Every piece of music is a product of its possibilities; it is the musician’s burden to channel these into a single coherent identity. To do so is either a talent or an affliction – Scuba, like most artists of worth, realises that there is little difference between the two.

Toby Bennett

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