“All our music is there to capture the imagination and we were writing tunes so they could be listened to as whole pieces or stories, rather than dj tools. The idea of people interpreting the songs in different ways and creating their own narratives is really interesting to us”.
‘A good sample is worth a thousand synths or plug-ins’
The next installment of the series is about one of my favourite tracks of recent years, which has all the qualifying attributes of an instant classic. In a previous post I had manifested the importance of a memorable, intriguing, even cryptic artist name or an appealing title/logo for a record label. Our culture of distraction and minimal attention span seems unrelenting on burying new music beneath an endless scroll. An attractive name won’t compensate for dreadful music, but it’s definitely a head-start and if there’s a chance to go down in musical history, then it’d better take place in style. I can see eyebrows raising already; however following the aforementioned maxim I have made brilliant discoveries over the years.
I stumbled upon Narratives Music, while browsing Surus, the now defunct online store managed by ST Holdings. It’s been one of those cases that I was sold, before even listening to a single clip. The austere brand logo, featuring the ‘NARRATIVES’ title enclosed in brackets, with white font superimposed on a plain black background (the logo has later appeared in various artistic coloured variations), as well as the label name itself were an overture to cast my own interpretations and visualize my own subjective account of the images, the stories and the sentiments the music conveyed.
Having been formally introduced to each other by Jem-One, Double O and Mantra at Rupture, Phil Smith (Blocks) and Will Hansen (Escher) made their discography debut as a production outfit for Horizons Music (Heart Shaped b/w All In Good Time, HZN033) exactly 10 years ago. However, it was another track written around the same time that’s been the prelude of a remarkable musical journey triggering a series of events that cemented Blocks & Escher’s reputation as one of the most sought after underground names in electronic music.
‘Broken’ was originally conceived and written three years prior to its official release. Escher reflects on the background story:
“The only person I sent the tune to originally was Rico from ‘Darkestral’. He was interested in a few of our tunes and really liked ‘Broken’. He thought he could hear voices speaking in the subtleties of the background atmosphere and was suggesting we should call the tune ‘Narratives’.
He penciled in a 12” for ‘Darkestral’ with ‘Shiver’ on the flip. I was so chuffed. That label was and is very special to me. He is very particular about what gets put out and after them being penciled for a long time they didn’t fit the direction quite right. I was absolutely gutted, but he suggested that we started a label. I didn’t think it would work, us being too new to everything, but at the same time the tunes really didn’t seem to fit anywhere else properly”.
What was considered a major setback turned out to be effectively a blessing in disguise, as Blocks & Escher established in 2011 their own label aptly titled ‘Narratives Music’ in order to be self-sufficient, free from genre-constraints, distractions and release schedules. In their own words:
“As mentioned before, the idea of the name ‘Narratives’, which Rico had suggested for the tune (Broken), struck a chord with us for the label name. All our music is there to capture the imagination and we were writing tunes, so they could be listened to as whole pieces or stories, rather than dj tools. The idea of people interpreting the songs in different ways and creating their own narratives is really interesting to us. The logo fit perfectly with this concept. Leaving the space blank for interpretation for the listener stylistically worked. It felt fresh and not the usual style of the genre. One of Phil’s friends Paul Ross from ‘Studio Ross’ is a graphic designer and typographer and he has been working with us from the start, designing our font and art throughout all of the releases” – Escher.
“When it came to starting the label it was less of a point of sitting down to create a sound, rather more a case of creating an outlet, so we could focus on the music we really wanted to release. I think ‘music’ is the key word here; I always wanted Narratives to be about music first, D&B second” – Blocks.
Initially a platform for their own material, Narratives Music has been run since day one with style and grace, championing a quality over quantity ethos with a slow yet steady release schedule. Encompassing elegant artwork and aesthetics rendering each physical product unique and collectible, the label’s vision is reflected on the exquisite music. The term ‘cinematic’ has been overused, but Blocks & Escher’s cerebral approach to music is almost Lynchian, a unique juxtaposition of the ordinary with the avant-garde, and would definitely be a fitting soundtrack to a Cunningham imaginary short film.
Blocks & Escher – Broken (b/w Sagan, NARRATIVES001, 2012)
‘A good sample is worth a thousand synths or plug-ins’ – Blocks.
‘Broken’ was eventually released on January, 2012 with a new track ‘Sagan’ on the flipside (and ‘Cymbal Runner’ as a bonus digital download) and forged Narratives’ distinctive musical path. The opening notes are mournful, almost elegiac and the subtle vocals are intimate and fragile as whispers. After 45 seconds, the first drum beat of a masterfully programmed loop signals a call to arms for a futile war doomed to be lost. With all the basic elements in place, the epic ‘Omnisphere’ lead synth, overcasts the distant battle cries, which dissolve to a silent bereavement. The track concludes with a glorious breakdown and finishes on the first bass note, which leaves the sense of a cliffhanger ending. That would eventually be resolved a few years later…
Will Escher breaks down the production specifics:
“We had just had a couple of releases and I had been working on ‘Cymbal Runner’. I was playing around with a bongo and some reverbs and ended up making the drum loop. The original drum loop pattern was actually the one we used in ‘Heliocentric’ with ASC, but I had bounced it down as a wav. So, I just started cutting bars out and reversing bits and came up with the broken drum pattern. This meant that the whole way through the tune, I just had the beat as one wav, so I couldn’t go back in and mix it exactly how I would have liked.
I was sitting on the loop for a while thinking it was cool and had sent it to Phil to see if it was vibing for him. After a while he sent back a version, which basically had all the intro string sounds over it and we were buzzing. It had this mad epic sound to it, which reminded me of a reflective slow-mo of a battle. I remember at first, we had an idea to put some low key vocals over it. I started playing with samples, as I was keen to get it moving. I was listening to a lot of Depeche Mode and think the main synth sounds maybe came off of that in my mind. They are all samples.
The bass and the main hook are the same sound, which was the first bit added, then it really started to take shape. I added the acid stabs and the answer synths and sent it back to Phil. He added some percussion and the subtle vocal samples. We were buzzing off it. Well, I was anyway. We sequenced it, so it built throughout the track ending and added some Reece bass and a Juno 106 synth line in the background, which brings the end of the tune together”.
‘Shiver’ was reserved for the second release of the label. On the flipside featured a stunning remix of B&E’s debut ‘Heart Shaped’ by none other like the legendary ASC, who had been championing their music on his Auxiliary podcasts (Auxcasts) since the early days.
“He is not the sort of artist to ask which way he should take a remix and ultimately all we wanted was for him to take it apart on one of his journeys. Absolutely loved what he did with it, I love the progression and arrangement of elements. Something we are keen to do with our music is create something that can be listened to from start to finish, that almost grabs you and insists you listen to it in its entirety; something which can be lacking in d&b it seems, but ASC hits the nail on the head perfectly with this remix”- Blocks.
With the first two Narratives releases Blocks & Escher had made their mark in a head-turning fashion, however it was NARRATIVES003 that changed their career, exposed their music to wider audiences and culminated in a partnership with Metalheadz, one of the genre’s most venerated and prestigious labels. An excerpt from the blog’s archive (‘On The Outside, Looking In Vol. 1’) sheds light on the background story:
“One of the most important records of the 2010’s! I say this confidently, because it’s the record that got Blocks & Escher noticed in the premier league of Drum & Bass. It was ‘Rugged’ and ‘Late Snare’ that caught Goldie’s attention and this was the precursor to their signing on Metalheadz. Goldie used to live in the same town as me, Hemel Hempstead, and at that time I was working for SRD, who managed the production and distribution for Metalheadz. We became friends and would sometimes share the Hemel – London commute on the train. Goldie would be on his way to Bikram Yoga in Soho and I was on my way to SRD in Tottenham. One morning on the train over coffee we spoke about ‘Rugged’ and ‘Late Snare’, equally as excited about the single as each another. We both agreed it was a game changer and something very special. In fact, he said that he wished it had come out on Metalheadz. So I said to Goldie: ‘why don’t you sign them up?’ I’d become friends with Phil Blocks the year or so before, as I was truly inspired and intrigued by his and Escher’s new label Narratives. Goldie said to me: ‘I thought you’d know these guys’ and he liked the idea, so that very morning, when I got to work, I phoned Phil Blocks and asked him if he’d mind if I gave Goldie his number. Well, you can imagine Phil’s response! Later that same week, I met with Phil in Soho over a beer, and he gave me 2 copies of ‘Narratives 003’ on test press, one for me, and one for Goldie. I was invited for dinner at Goldie’s with the label distribution manager and good friend of mine Rico from SRD. Goldie cooked us the famous ‘Cliffy’s Chicken’ and I presented him with the Narratives Test Press. The following Friday night we all went to Metalheadz at Fabric, Goldie was on the decks and he played both sides of the vinyl record. It really was a wonderful moment and to see how the guys have moved up to the very top of the game and the huge inspiration they now give to others is something I’m extremely proud to have been a part of” – Michael ‘Soul Beat Runner’ Woodman.
Blocks & Escher soon expanded their label’s roster, fostering a creative home for like-minded producers. From all-star collaborations with accomplished artists ASC, Loxy & Resound and the incredible talents of newcomer Overlook, to the artisan electro vignettes of the mysterious Rhyming in Fives and the spectacular widescreen vistas of Concealed Identity, Narratives has sustained a high standard of quality and musical flavour.
2014 has been a very prolific year for Blocks & Escher. After a string of remixes for Submotion Orchestra, Enei, Prayer and Jubei & Goldie, they contributed a track (‘Madness’) to 4th volume of the acclaimed ‘Platinum Breakz’ series, as well as their first single for Metalheadz (Moods b/w Razor, META016) followed by Block’s solo ‘Séance EP’ (NARRATIVES008) and ‘Jimmy/Cala’ (NARRATIVES009) later that year.
The Broken Remix Project (NARRATIVES001X, NARRATIVES001R)
‘Broken’ finishes bang on the first bass note which always felt like it wasn’t over, like there was more to be said. This thought came together nicely, when we managed to get two very good remixes done years later on”- Escher.
In 2015, Blocks & Escher commissioned remixes for ‘Broken’ and by the start of the next year they already had finished versions by Paradox and Om Unit, two unique and breathtaking interpretations that complimented the original and completed the ‘Broken’ trilogy. After public demand and a lot of contemplation, the highly sought after VIP of ‘Sagan’, reserved for B&E’s sets was released as the flipside of Paradox’s remix on gorgeous jet black vinyl (NARRATIVES001R). The Om Unit remix was published on a limited edition single-sided vinyl, with a beautiful laser-etched design based on the Narratives Music logo on the other side (NARRATIVES001X); a true collector’s item. Both records were released on October, 7th 2016.
We wrote the ‘Sagan VIP’ a few years back just for our sets and I think a few others had it like Goldie, Doc Scott and Loxy. The original ‘Sagan’ was the first release on Narratives, so it remains a special one for us; the VIP just allowed us to keep it fresh in our sets. As with all these things, people catch on to what is getting played and then a mix-ripped version appeared online. We have had so many requests to release it and we had pondered over it for a little while. At the start of the year we had finished remixes of ‘Broken’ from Paradox and Om Unit, so the full remix release kinda took a life of its own. They both did their own thing in exactly their own styles and, aside from being amazing pieces of music, I think they show just how beautiful and varied Drum and Bass can still be” – Blocks.
Something Blue (Metalheadz, METALP015, 2018)
After ‘Moods/Razor’, Goldie had cheekily hinted about a forthcoming album on Metalheadz, which partly explains their production hiatus. Blocks & Escher admitted that they were sceptical about a concept that hadn’t even been conceived, which echoed Commix’s debut album ‘Call To Mind’ (Commix were the first artists, other than Goldie and his side-projects, to record an album for Metalheadz and had initially rejected the offer). I guess the pressure and expectations from a demanding fan-base and Goldie watching and waiting in the background are more than enough for anybody to get cold feet.
Album writing has always been and still remains an art form. When you want to make a statement in music, you write an album and at the moment those statements are more exciting, varied and relevant than ever before. Blocks & Escher are romantic about music and after a period of deliberation, with excitement and frustration entwined, they overcame their initial reservations and immersed into a sensational music odyssey. ‘Something Blue’, one of the most anticipated d&b albums in recent years lived up to, if not surpassed, expectations and essentially elevated their production status onto the genre’s elite.
“We put two long years of sometimes fun, sometimes cathartic and sometimes tedious studio sessions into it. Having released it on one of the most iconic labels in electronic music was a proud moment, but seeing the positivity towards it and hearing it still being played in venues, is the biggest buzz”- Blocks.
As the title suggests, the theme is centered on the nuances of the blue colour palette. From the bright azure colours of the ocean and the sea, to the darkest shades of night, a time for reflection, introspection, regret and absolution, Blocks & Escher have added saturated hues to the monochrome silence. Uncompromising, contemplative, delicate and emotional, the LP is a straight-forward narrative paying homage to the foundations of d&b. Emulating the atmosphere of a certain time and place is a tricky affair that could turn out horribly wrong. Blocks & Escher though managed to encapsulate the 90s Metalheadz revered sound they grew up with in a modern, contemporary context; an art print with a vision and a purpose. The lead single ‘Something Borrowed, Something Blue’, a reference to the ‘Metalheadz Blue Note Sessions’, envelopes the gravity of a future classic just like ‘Metropolis’ did two decades ago; a rhapsody in blue.
The distinctive sea blue cyanotype cover design is by graphic designer Later Ago, whose work has recently turned heads and the layout by Simone Deiana. Metalheadz also offered the LP from their official page in a limited edition collector’s bundle with a unique artwork print and a t-shirt.
Narratives wrapped up 2018 in style with two fantastic records from Metalheadz stable-mate SB81 and Brighton-based rising star Ilk, featuring full artwork sleeves for both. 2019 sounds as promising and exciting as ever with new projects by Blocks & Escher already in the making.
Keep up-to-date with the latest news and all things Blocks & Escher and Narratives Music following the social media links below:
bandcamp: Narratives Music
All tracks of the series have been hand-picked from my personal record collection and have had a profound impact on my musical views and aesthetics. Featuring a variety of tracks across the electronic music spectrum, emphasizing mainly on drum and bass, from undisputed classics to underrated gems, all are tracks I wish I’d written, as the title of the series suggests.
Visit the blog’s archive for the previous installments of the “Tracks I Wish I’d Written” series here.
*Quotes in red by Will Escher, exclusively for the feature
*Quotes in blue by Phil Blocks, excerpts from various interviews
*Quotes in green by Michael ‘Soul Beat Runner’ Woodman from the blog’s archive