It’s time for UK Garage to hit PBs.
I know what you’re thinking. But no, this isn’t Oxide & Neutrino or So Solid Crew.
This has almost nothing to do with the chart oriented, MC-dominated music that while now unfashionable, sowed the seeds of the grime powerhouse to come.
Wookie’s roots go much further back to the very beginnings of garage, but it also fuses elements from a long line of black British music which continues to run today all the way to the likes of Moses Boyd. Wookie’s link to Soul II Soul is no coincidence and you can hear the influence of Club Classics Vol. One loud and clear (right down to the sample of ‘Back to Life’ on ‘Success’).
So now I’ve rightly repositioned your expectations, let me entice you more with the contents of this album.
‘Battle’ and ‘Scrappy’ and ‘What Going On’ are the best known tunes on this album and you may even recognise them. They’re also the most typically garage-y moments.
Like bass? Then you’re in for a treat with ‘Down on Me’ and ‘Flex’.
Vocalist Lain adds melodic and harmonic richness throughout. Yes proper actual lyrical UK Garage songs!
I struggled to sell what this album has to offer to others when it came out – they were far too interested in telling me that Oxide & Neutrino was rubbish as soon as the ‘G’ word was mentioned. I agreed. But they couldn’t see beyond that. I think you are the man who can.
Well James, I’m excited. I’ve had a lot of electronic music on rotation lately, so I think this will hit the spot. I’ve not listened to a garage album before though. I’ve always liked the garage ‘sound’ (the breakbeats, pitched-up samples etc), but I assumed that it wouldn’t lend itself well to a full-length album. And that’s not completely on Oxide & Neutrino – ‘Bound 4 Da Reload’ is still very much a guilty pleasure. But I’m prepared to be proven wrong.
‘Get Enuff’ starts with high-pitched keys and trademark 4/4 breakbeats. This is what I expected, and the high-tempo percussive beats sound enjoyably crisp. When it comes to Lain’s vocals though, I’m not sure there’s much here lyrically. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for music intended for the dancefloor, but I’m listening in my flat, and I’m slightly concerned that it’ll get wearing after a while.
But things quickly pick up. You mentioned ‘Scrappy’ in your intro and while I don’t recognise it, I’m instantly enjoying its rhythm which doesn’t match the song’s title at all. This one benefits from the absence of lyrics, with nothing more than a refrain repeating “come on, come on”. This would be good exercise music. I like the pace of this tune, with Wookie seemingly trusting the song’s minimal elements to work their magic.
Lain’s back with us for ‘Battle’, but I instantly prefer this to the opener. The song has a somewhat dejected air, as he sings about every day feeling like a battle, but believing in his faith to pull him through. Again, it’s unfamiliar to me, but by the end I’m singing along with the chorus from this first listen. That must be a good sign.
And then we’re back to the instrumentals. ‘Down On Me’ has snatches of sampled sighs from female vocalists – another garage and dubstep hallmark. I have to say, I’m really appreciating the pacing of this album so far. Like any good mix, it introduces elements for impact – like vocals or samples – then takes them out again and lets the beats do the work. It’s not doing too much and I like that – not every song needs to strive for attention. Ordinarily I’d baulk at an album’s near hour-long runtime but I feel like I could listen to this for ages.
I love the way that ‘Down On Me’ then melds seamlessly into the mid-tempo groove of ‘Joy My Pride’. That’s lovely stuff. It becomes clear very quickly that this is a love song. “Bundle of joy”… “You’ve got your mother’s eyes”… ah, it’s about his child. That’s nice. These lyrics are a little basic though and despite the pleasant tune, it’s certainly not a standout so far. And the same can be said for ‘Back Up, Back Up, Back Up’. It’s another instrumental, and this one seems to have Spanish guitar and keyboard strings which differentiates it from the others. But though it’s competently assembled, it doesn’t stand out like the previous ones. I also want a change of pace now – I’m expecting Lain to return and it’s a bit predictable.
But Wookie somehow hears these words from the year 2000 and throws them back in my FACE as there is no Lain on ‘VCF’. Instead, rather excitingly, there’s a sinister-sounding beat which sounds made for the dead of night. I like this A LOT. It has these recurring spooky keys in the background which add to its nocturnal quality. I also love these bassy, squelchy beats at the forefront. I don’t know what VCF stands for but it’s a Very Clear Favourite of mine so far (see what I did there?!)
Anyway, next song and- what’s this? Piano? Maracas? A singer that isn’t Lain? This doesn’t sound like anything we’ve heard so far. In fact, it’s the confusingly named ‘What Going On’. I look back at your intro and realise that the chorus I recognise are indeed from Soul II Soul’s ‘Back to Life’. The beat compliments the singer’s vocals well, but there are a lot of elements to this tune and I’m not convinced by that climbing piano which comes and goes at will. Still, I like the fact he’s changed things up here, and I warm to the piano as the song reaches its finale.
‘Success’ also starts with piano, but this is less upbeat. The vocalist (an uncredited Lain, I think) sings “it’s just around the way”, so I’m guessing that these melancholy yet hopeful sentiments are similar to those in ‘Battle’. This atmosphere also feels very ‘night time’ and I’m enjoying it (even though it’s the middle of the day).
And as we draw towards the album’s end, I’m ready for Wookie to ‘Flex’ his production muscles once more on the penultimate track. Fittingly, a breakbeat begins with intent. This one reminds me of ‘Scrappy’ and ‘Down On Me’ in its stripped back construction, with Wookie dropping little flourishes as and when is necessary. He’s clearly a master of his craft. As you mention in your intro James, it has a similar appeal to those previously mentioned songs.
‘Time’ begins very mid-tempo (this sounds like someone actually playing a drum kit) and feels more like 70s disco than UK garage. Lain is uncredited here but who else could it be, offering affirmations to us about the nature of time, ageing and the meaning of life? I don’t think any of these lyrics have been particularly profound or striking, but they’ve served this album well, serving as points of interest in the mix and supplementing the out and out dance tunes effectively. What happened to Lain? Is Lain still active? I hope he found answers to his existential questions.
I have to say that I’ve enjoyed quite a lot of this record, James. As with any first listen to an album, it really helps if you want to enjoy it, but though I was very ready for a big slice of classic garage, Wookie well and truly delivered. I don’t think everything landed on first listen, but I found it consistently gratifying. Never again will I doubt UK garage’s ability to sustain a whole record. I’d urge you to send a print-out of this article and your Wookie CD to any of those (hopefully former) friends from twenty years ago with one message: Up Middle Finger. (I’m ending on a niche Oxide & Neutrino joke, sorry not sorry.)
Words by Tom Burrows