London producer Rob McAndrews, or Airhead, explained last year in an interview with Dummy that his introduction to composing bass music came in 2007, through exposure to the thriving dubstep scene in Leeds. One can almost imagine a younger McAndrews coming home, body battered from the staggering bass-weight dropped by the likes of Skream and Digital Mystikz, dizzy at the thought of exploring the musical avenues that these lofty figures had illuminated. Yet, his initial attempts to recreate their sonic mastery and dancefloor presence fell far short: “all I was doing was lifting their music and trying to imitate it.” Like so many fledging artists, he fell into the rut of borrowing rather than stealing.
It took Maybes, a Mount Kimbie EP released two years later, to truly bring about a shift in paradigm, its abstract dubstep soundscapes requiring an added prefix (“post”) to describe the new spaces that Dominic Maker and Kai Campos had found in between the genre’s lurching half-time beat. The notion of making “classic dubstep tracks” thus shattered, McAndrews sought to “bring [his] own musical ideas to this thing.” He began to incorporate guitar into his music—not only using it for samples, but also drawing on the compositional frames wrought from years of experimentation and practice—reconciling his background as an instrumentalist with his interest in niche UK bass production when the two often seemed at odds with one another.
Half a decade on, Airhead has undeniably built a unique sound-frame, first weld together in the 2013 debut album/post-dubstep sound-collage For Years on R&S records. It is from those leftfield structures that he now re-enters the dancefloor, having gained a better perspective on club constructions by working away from its blueprints. As such, Airhead’s latest EP, Believe, continues to be informed by post-dubstep ideology, but its club-beats feel locked down in comparison with his previous abstractions. For instance, the eclectic quality of For Years is still present: the EP is bookended by tender gospel-house beat “Believe” and the yearning synths in “Hundred Years”, while the two middle tracks, “Shirin” and “Shekure”, play dark and feverish—an agitated grime stomper and a booming subterranean frenzy respectively. But, whereas his last effort coheres around cerebral temperaments (and a dash of indie rock), 1-800 Dinosaur parties serve as the singular backdrop for Believe, and gone are the detailed emotional sceneries in For Years. Nonetheless, one should be cautious in demarcating Believe as new territory, as it is more of a shift in attention than anything.
Sinister dance tracks can sometimes be repetitive though, a result of their DJ-friendly utility; yet, Believe is not necessarily all the “boom boom oscillation and hands-in-the-air machine gun party” that the press release suggests: some of this stuff is still more suited for an art-installment than dimlit basement clubs, and you won’t be hearing this EP (except maybe “Believe”) at more “conventional” venues. Even “Shekure”, whose second drop would floor any late-night partyer, employs abrasive noise, texture and minimalism in a manner that is just as apt for staring at a blank wall as it is for dancing. “Hundred Years”, on the other hand, uses club music elements but doesn’t seem to have much dancefloor application—its rap samples wistful, its dubstep rhythms slowed, lulled by the gorgeous pads rising out from stark rooms.
Airhead therefore remains fairly consistent with his existing efforts in Believe, producing avant-garde music that will have bass aficionados pushing up their thick-rimmed glasses. This is no surprise, as McAndrews has always managed to position himself in close proximity to bass music frontiers, even with the limited terrain his few releases have covered. Some attribute this success to his connection with wubstep crooner and 1-800-Dinosaur label-mate James Blake (whom Airhead grew up and tours with); however, whilst similarities exist, a quick browse through Believe and For Years is enough to definitively label Airhead as something wholly other than Blake. Admittedly, certain tracks on the EP are reminiscent of Blake’s earlier work, but it is likely that McAndrews has had as much of an influence on Blake as Blake has had on him. Ultimately, these are just artists that allow dance music to transcend hype and formulas, seeking fresh spaces for sonic textures and bass to inhabit. In this manner, Airhead continues to prove that post-dubstep—not the second-tier imitations of Mount Kimbie, James Blake or Jamie xx, but the aesthetic philosophy itself—is not dead.
“The inward has been ex-changed for the outward”