“Ever get that feeling, when you experience some sort of musical epiphany and strive to memorize the melody and the lyrics of a song you have just listened to, before they‘re lost into the next morning’s haze?”
This month is my blog’s 8th year anniversary and to be honest I’ve never expected to make it this far. It has been a unique opportunity to connect with some of my musical icons, as well as with many like-minded people across the world and celebrate the music we all love. Traditionally, the anniversary features are retrospective accounts and this one will be no exception; another one of my tedious lists, supplemented with a few comments, liner notes and fan facts.
Lyrics and vocals in drum & bass (or the lack thereof) have been a subject of endless debates. A bona fide love-or-hate affair, vocals implicitly represent a counterpoint to the misconception that drum & bass is a musical genre with emphasis on fast beats, which are resolutely cold and mechanical. The lyrics may encapsulate elementary or profound thoughts, poignant yet redemptive emotions; a collage of micro-contradictions that live and breathe through various shifts of interpretation. I would argue that, when done right, you simply cannot listen to the respective instrumental version again.
Some of you might have recognized the head title. It’s the opening line from the song ‘M’ (The Cure, Seventeen Seconds, 1980) written by Robert Smith and allegedly inspired from/dedicated to his future wife. Although the musical context of this list is a world apart, the essence is not too dissimilar. If you listen closely, you might notice a recurring theme, which is perhaps subliminally associated with my favourite passage from Nick Hornby’s book ‘High Fidelity’. Lost memories, lost lovers, lost friendships, lost time, anything that seems at your fingertips, but is tantalizingly always out of reach.
When I started compiling a provisional list on my mental diary, I quickly realized that I could go on forever, unless I’d set some rules in order to confine the scope. I decided to focus only on tracks with original vocals or at least tracks where the vocalist/singer has been fully credited on the record sleeve, excluding bootlegs, strictly sample-based vocals, cross-genre remixes etc. Every track has been hand-picked from my record collection; snapshots that capture and reflect various moments from my musical journey in the realm of drum & bass for more than 25 years. I apologize in advance for my omissions, after all this is only a personal opinion. Some entries will resonate with you, others won’t and a few will even raise eyebrows. I realize the shades of favouritism, but I would like to think this is an honest appraisal.
In chronological order:
- Foul Play – Music Is The Key (Moving Shadow, 1994)
Vocals: Denise Gordon
Perhaps overshadowed by the universal acclaim of ‘Being With You’ on the flipside, ‘Music Is The Key’ compensates for the unconventional structure and extended use of vocals with emotional gravity and depth. Upon Steve Bradshaw’s request, who wrote the poignant and relevant as ever lyrics, soulful jazz singer Denise Gordon and a family friend of Steve’s, delivered a breathtaking performance, which captures the dramatic essence of the lyrics and works beautifully with the melancholic, almost mournful notes. The vocal line, especially in the first verse, sounds intentionally reminiscent of Anita Baker’s soul classic ‘Sweet Love’. The recording of the vocals and the final arrangement using a 4-track tape recorder took place in two different studios (Gurley’s studio in Milton Keynes and another in Northampton), hence the delay to the official release date, which partly explains why ‘Being With You’ was floating around as a dubplate for almost a year.
A feature dedicated to ‘Music Is The Key’ from the blog’s archive here.
- Goldie – Sea Of Tears (FFRR, 1995)
Vocals: Lorna Harris, Caroline Butler, Jamie Goldikus Jr.
I can sense the sneers already; a list without ‘Inner City Life’ wouldn’t make any sense. I do realize that ‘Inner City Life’ intrinsically defined the vocal d&b blueprint, but I would still argue that ‘Sea Of Tears’ is Goldie’s magnum opus. Of course, Diane Charlemagne features later on this list. One of the singles from ‘Timeless’, with an extended length (just over 12 minutes) even by 90s standards, ‘Sea of Tears’ has (still) one of the genre’s most sentimental breakdowns. Lead vocals are by Lorna Harris and guest vocals by Caroline Butler (Moving Shadow’s label manager at the time) and Jamie Goldikus Jr. Instead of the album track, I attach a mesmerizing live rendition by Goldie & The Heritage Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London (on July 22nd, 2015), celebrating the album’s 20th anniversary.
- EZ Rollers – Walk This Land (Moving Shadow, 1996)
Vocals: Kelly Richards
A fan fact by Simon Colebrooke, founding member of 2 Bad Mice and former A&R at Moving Shadow:
“We used to hand out CDs and tapes to a ‘Champagne & Oyster’ Bar near our office [the old premises of the legendary Trident Studios, 17 St Anne’s Court, Soho London]. One day a film producer visited and heard ‘Walk This Land’ by EZ Rollers … he liked it and put it in his film…”
The producer was Matthew Vaughn, the film was ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’, Guy Richie’s acclaimed directorial breakthrough and the scene in question takes place at JD’s (portrayed by Sting) bar, where the gang has a drinking and smoking celebration after the successful heist.
‘Walk This Land’ (Lock Stock Full Length Mix) originally featured in the first regional Moving Shadow compilation ‘Storm From The East’. Following the film’s commercial success, various mixes and edits of ‘Walk This Land’ were released in 1999. Attached is the promotional video clip with a cameo appearance by EZ Rollers themselves.
- Everything But The Girl – Walking Wounded (Virgin, 1996)
Vocals: Tracey Thorne
‘Walking Wounded’ is EBTG’s 9th LP and their highest charting album to date, which marked an orientation shift towards dance electronic music. The title track, produced by Spring Heel Jack (lyrics written by Ben Watt and sung by Tracey Thorne), mapped pop sensibility onto the d&b template, sprinkled with the glitter dust of EBTG’s crossover appeal. Everything But The Girl commissioned d&b remixes for 2 singles from the album: ‘Walking Wounded’ (remixed by Omni Trio and Dave Wallace) and ‘Single’ (remixed by Photek).
- Voyager – Desire (R&S, 1997)
Vocals: Christina Murphy
Pete Parsons’ debut album ‘Future Retro’ was released by R&S in 1997, after being delayed for more than a year due to a legal wrangling about the sample clearance of the album’s undisputed highlight, the timeless classic ‘Hypersleep’ (more from the blog’s archive here). ‘Desire’ is the lead single from ‘Future Retro’ and vocalist Christina Murphy conveys that deep, melodic, slightly melancholic musical direction Voyager was putting into a lot of his productions at the time. The single includes also an enchanting downtempo version (Wishful Thinking Mix) and a remix by Dave Wallace.
- Makoto – Golden Girl (Good Looking, 2004)
Vocals: MC Conrad
Perhaps the last certified GLR anthem, ‘Golden Girl’ is a track that reflects the arrogance and naivety of an earlier life I wasn’t quite ready to leave behind. Although I have a pretty good idea about the passionate lyrical textures, I’ll leave them open to interpretation. A fervent romance so intense that was doomed to end in tears, a man head over heels struggling to find the courage to confess his unreciprocated love, an ode to one’s personal muse, the golden girl …
A feature dedicated to ‘Golden Girl’ from the blog’s archive here.
- Seba & Paradox – Last Goodbye (Paradox Music, 2006)
Vocals: Robert Manos
Seba & Paradox are one of the genre’s most consistent production teams that could easily have multiple entries in this list and Robert Manos’ signature voice is a real gift to the genre. I contemplated a lot about which track should feature, so I opted for one of their earlier works on Paradox Music for variety. Last year, Seba and Paradox established a dedicated label for their joint-productions (19 at the time of writing), so I would expect more future collaborations with Robert Manos.
- DJ Zinc – Don’t Bury Me (Bingo, 2006)
Vocals: Jenna G
A constellation of renowned d&b producers (Chase & Status, Commix, Total Science, dBridge, Dj Zinc, Shy FX & TPower, Nu:tone and more) contributed tracks to Jenna G’s debut album ‘For Lost Friends’ cementing the reputation of the Mancunian singer and songwriter. ‘Don’t Bury Me’ produced by DJ Zinc and released on his label, is my personal favourite and the first track I ever heard from the album in a Bukem Progression Sessions mix (@ Detonate, 2005).
- Calibre & Zero Tolerance – What I Feel (Signature, 2007)
Calibre’s productions are the epitome of the term, whether he enlists singers or uses his own vocals. Very eclectic in his collaborations, especially for his Signature label, ‘What I Feel’, co-produced with Zero Tolerance, is perhaps one of his most underrated tracks, nonetheless one of my favourites. The seductive vocals by the mysterious Myrrh-ce, stylishly reflect Portishead’s emotional appropriations (the drone sound at the beginning is sampled from their song ‘Western Eyes’).
- Apex – Space Between (Hospital, 2007)
Vocals: Ayah Marar
Following his departure from Unknown Error, Robert Dickeson went solo under the Apex recording alias and ‘Space Between’ was his debut release, which featured on the 3rd volume of the ‘Weapons of Mass Creation’ compilation series published by Hospital Records. A dazzling collaboration with the multi-talented Jordanian singer/songwriter Ayah Marar, who had worked as a touring MC with Hospital, before she launched her own label and club nights in London.
Robert Dickeson untimely passed away on 30 September 2017. As a fitting tribute to his memory, Hospital Records in association with ‘Help Musicians UK’ released a special edition 12” to raise awareness surrounding mental health issues within the music industry (more information here).
- Naibu – Fireflies (Horizons, 2008)
Taken from the eponymous EP released on Horizons Music, Naibu’s creative home in the following years, ‘Fireflies’ was probably inspired from the emotionally draining 1988 Japanese animated war drama ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’. The concept, from artwork to track titles, abounds with impressions and references to Japanese culture and Kiyomi’s whispery and fragile vocals fit perfectly within that framework. The following year, Naibu released his sophomore self-titled LP adopting a similar concept and including a Seba remix of ‘Fireflies’.
- Seba – Blaze & Fade Out (Combination, 2008)
Vocals: Kirster Linder
‘Blaze & Fade Out’ is the lead single from Seba’s debut album ‘Return To Forever’ released on the German label Combination. Working with co-patriot Kirster Linder, former vocalist of the pop duo Dive, Seba delivered one of the highlights of his prolific recording career.
On December 27th, 2014 Seba and Blu Mar Ten were both booked to dj in Athens, a much anticipated night with two of the city’s favourites. However, things in life usually don’t turn out as hoped or planned; adverse weather at Arlanda airport in Stockholm resulted in all outbound flights being suspended that day, so regrettably Seba couldn’t make it. Chris Marigold compensated the avid audience with a memorable set, including an hour with Seba’s finest musical moments closing the tribute with ‘Blaze & Fade Out’ to a rapturous reception.
- Blame – Keep The Sunshine (720 Degrees, 2008)
Vocals: Diane Charlemagne
Diane Charlemagne, was one of the UK’s greatest soul voices, who helped change the direction of drum & bass and a true diva of dance music. ‘Keep The Sunshine’ is one of Blame‘s most auspicious tracks and was recorded during a prolific period of remarkable chart success. As the title suggests, it is the most optimistic and radiant track of this list, but sadly presaged a fitting farewell to 720 Degrees, which went on hiatus a year later.
- SpectraSoul – Melodies (Exit, 2009)
Vocals: Mike Knight
The duo met while David Kennett was working as label manager for Shogun Audio. It was only when they adopted a new song-based approach bringing vocalists into the fold though, that they elevated to the scene’s production elite with high profile releases on some of the genre’s most prestigious labels. Jubei recalls the first time he listened to ‘Melodies’:
“I remember vividly hearing this for the first time. dBridge played it at FWD down Plastic People. There is a recording of that night and you get to hear everyone’s response to it. For me it’s a very ‘Exit’ track, slightly different thinking behind it, very futuristic and executed well”.
I was lucky enough to have a similar experience a few months later, when Jack Stevens played a dj set in Athens. One of those tunes you keep humming the whole night.
- Calibre – Judgement Day (Samurai Red Seal, 2010)
Connected by Marcus Intalex, the relationship between Calibre and DRS extends well beyond the stage. Touring partners and kindred musical spirits, who have supported each other through thick and thin, their musical collaborations transcend genre confines. It’s been literally bewildering to choose only one track, so perhaps influenced by the pandemic I opted again for another less lauded Calibre track. The violin samples combined with Calibre’s effortless artistry and DRS’ poetic fluency render it as suitable for the list as any. ‘Judgement Day’ is taken from the eponymous EP on Samurai Red Seal (now defunct Samurai Music Group sub-label, which focused on the mellower side of the spectrum and has been merged with the main label).
- Lenzman – Fade Away (Soul:r, 2010)
Vocals: Jo-s (Joseph Esposit)
Lenzman is another producer who probably deserves more than one entry. ‘Fade Away’ was released on Marcus’ Soul:r and Joseph Esposit’s vocals are simply stunning. It was released around the same time with his Metalheadz debut (‘Open Page’ with Riya) and has been played by Goldie at each and every one of his gigs in Athens. So, I strongly suspect that ‘Fade Away’ has been Lenzman’s entry ticket to apply his soulful take on the revered Metalheadz sound.
- Blu Mar Ten – Whisper (BMT Music, 2011)
Vocals: Kirsty Hawkshaw
My love for Blu Mar Ten has been well documented on the blog and extends beyond the musical sphere. ‘Whisper’ is taken from ‘Love Is The Devil’, their second album for their label BMT Music. In their own words:
“… trying to find that particular and delicate place between sadness and hope. We rarely find it, exactly, but we come close sometimes. It’s like what they say about jazz players, always trying to find the ‘lost chord’ …”
Poetic, introspective, fragile, intimate and unbearably romantic, ‘Whisper’ is the d&b equivalent of a love song and Kirsty Hawkshaw’s ethereal voice reaches that elusive special place. So, I was not surprised at all to hear it as the opening song at a wedding reception …
- J Majik & Wickaman – Ritual (Metalheadz, 2011)
Vocals: Dee Freer
J Majik, one of the artists who he helped shape that revered early Metalheadz sound, returned after 13 years (his last appearance being ‘Freefall’ in the 1998 box-set) to the label in a riveting fashion. ‘Ritual’, co-written with his recording partner Wickaman, has a touch of the old spell and is a fitting tribute to his Metalheadz musical legacy. Dee Freer’s heartbreaking vocals encompass feelings of guilt and regret. The sleeve artwork, designed by Richard Lock, is one of my favourite variations of the emblematic Metalheadz logo.
J Majik’s 3rd solo studio album is due next month. The title ‘Always Be’ is intentionally open to interpretation and the excellent music transcends formulas and genre barriers, echoing his debut LP (‘Slow Motion’, 1997).
- Sabre, Stray & Halogenix (Ivy Lab) – Oblique (Critical Music, 2012)
Vocals: Frank Carter III
‘Oblique’ is the debut release of the North London trio before they assumed the Ivy Lab moniker they are best known for. The smooth melancholic voice of New Yorker Frank Carter III (his gospel/funk musical background is evident) compliments one of Ivy Lab’s discography highlights, before they branched out to hip-hop inspired abstractions housed within the framework of their ’20/20 LDN’ project (Club night and record label). As of March 2018, Halogenix has departed Ivy Lab to refocus on his solo projects.
- Klute – Seperation (Commercial Suicide, 2013)
Vocals: Collette Warren
Klute is a certified album artist and a producer whose music is densely layered, inviting the listener to stretch towards some sort of wondrous alchemy limited only by their own imagination. Taken from Klute’s 7th studio album ‘The Draft’ (featuring one of my favourite cover illustrations: a photo of a woman in Tokyo on her way to work), ‘Seperation’ is Klute’s refined view on romance. Collette Warren, who started her career as a backing vocalist for MC Tali’s live jazz band, before collaborating with some of the drum & bass scene’s leading producers, gracefully paints a portrait of desolation and loss.
- Blocks & Escher – The Sea (Metalheadz, 2018)
Vocals: Jennifer Hall
‘The Sea’ is taken from Blocks & Escher’s magnificent debut album ‘Something Blue’. As the title suggests, the theme denotes the nuances of the blue colour palette; from the bright azure colours of the ocean and the sea, to the darkest shades of night. Emulating the atmosphere of a certain time and place is a tricky affair that could turn out horribly wrong. Blocks & Escher though achieved to encapsulate the 90s Metalheadz venerated sound they grew up with in a modern, contemporary context; an art print with a vision and a purpose. Uncompromising, contemplative, delicate and emotional, ‘The Sea’ is a straight-forward narrative paying homage to the label’s foundations (and perhaps a nod to ‘Sea Of Tears’). Jennifer Hall’s voice carries the gravity of a future Metalheadz classic.
- Bonus entry: dBridge feat. Riya – Seems Like (Autonomic, 2010)
Not strictly a drum & bass track per se, but it definitely relates to that kind of aesthetic. dBridge and Riya are obviously entitled to a place in this list for their contributions to the scene, so their partnership seemed a reasonable selection.
dBridge & Instra:mental, spearheaded a new sound that evolved to a distinct sub-genre with their ‘Autonomic’ podcasts in 2009. The ‘Autonomic’ podcast series showcased a unique and versatile blend of productions, emphasizing not only on the new half-step drum and bass sound, but augmented with cross-genre sections with tracks from various musical styles, which have inspired and influenced them along the years. The release of their Fabriclive 50 mixed compilation (‘Seems Like’ is the opening track) to critical acclaim the next year, encapsulated the momentum ‘Autonomic’ was gaining and the ensued exposure to wider audiences, riding a wave that redefined the shape of the genre.