This one, this one, this one…
For a month, now, I’ve been keeping it on the back burner. “Oh, I’ll write about it tomorrow” I’d say, waiting for the 24 hours when I’d really feel the writing forces amass within me. So many bleary-eyed days have been and gone since I first laid ears on this man’s musical vision of Eden and none of them worthy of the arduous endeavour.
Fore an EP like this – I say ‘EP’, there’s 7 tracks going on here. Fucking 7!!… ‘Album’ much? – isn’t one that you can just slap up on the web with a copy-and-paste-job bit of press release jargon, bury the embedded playlist, Tweet the label and be done with it (like so many of these “major-league” and accredited “webzines” do…).
It is one that is deserved of yours and mine’s full frontal attention. So splash some chilled water on your midday mug, sit up straight, ffs, and pay absolute attention – Stray’s taking us to Paradise…
WELCOME TO PARADISE
Enter the sparkling void. A heliocentric spirograph of kaleidoscopic passage thrusts the wanderers into a birds-eye flight – the sweeping aerial shots – the tourism-travel dream that whispers “Visit (here)…” but without the people, without the branded indent, without the television – no advertising and no product – we’re not in the real world any more. Welcome to a London lad’s audible take on Shangri-La…
Those of you familiar with J Fogel(Stray)’s works of the past two years will be attuned to a particular vein of 85bpm track, one that he’s almost single-handedly pioneered; a glossy, 80-87bpm format merging the US’s crushing Trap empire with the UK bass scene, drawing valuable life-blood from the demi-gods of the Exit-founded Autonomic movement though stinging the whole lot with straight-laced hip-hop funk and finesse with an added pop-ish, hi-gloss twist. Heavyweight beats like the Chatterbox EP‘s Eazy Boy (April 2014), the Matchsticks title track from his 2013 EP release (October), that 20/20 bootleg of N.O.R.E’s Superthug (June 2014) and the collective bootleg (no-doubt heavily steered by the Stray) of Cam’Ron’s Oh Boy (October 2014).
Think Nero just before the height of their full-frontal commercial career – looking back, the polished electro-brostep monolith are no treat to my aged ears but the experience that their music delivered, at the time, differs in no way, shape or form, to how this particular area of Stray’s production grabs and throttles me now. I remember stumbling across a track from the pair tipping a year before its final erection: Crush On You. You might think that the screaming high-end and rippling “filth” just can’t be compared to something as precious as the lower reaches of drum & bass’s fiercely defended “underground”, though I might think that you should shut the fuck up and strap on your adult-life ball bags, you over-inflated, exacerbatory audiophile-istine. So there you go…
When Crush On You descended into my dubstep midst I was blown away and excited. There was this funky little sample chopped from some 70s/80s disco ting that had been slammed over a four-to-the-floor rhythm, vocals pitched up nice and Alvin-like – and it just threw people. I’d see clips of these festival brehs getting a full-face of the track and they’d basically stop dancing and look a bit confused; “D’fucks the filthy dubstep at bro?” they’d say with their boggled-but-questioning eyes – and then it breaks – it catches you with one stepped bar of silence where the “drop, bro?” would be and then punches you with a giant fist, everywhere at once; the “filth” arrived. What have we got with Stray’s super-charged facet of gut-sucker-fucking 85 tracks? We’ve got another form of half-time music exploiting the tantalisingly catchy choral vocals of the female-disco-hipple-hopple past, squealing away, Chipmunked hard, fused like a thin, piercing layer over the top of a massive fat barrel of wobbling, squabbling bass.
Filth is still very much alive and well, it’s just not got a label on it and the teens (that I once fucking was) with brightly coloured t-shirts and long straightened hair aren’t there moshing to it (I would like to point out that I NEVER moshed at an electronic club night/rave/festival. Not even once… Because I’m not a cunt.). Instead, it’s refined, it’s classier, it’s not being funnelled down our necks – it’s not a genre. It’s a temporary exploration of a sub division of a sub division of a genre. It’s 2 years worth of 1 man’s specific type of another specific form of his specific sound. There’s room to breathe for the noise of it. Because it doesn’t exist in a perpetual roll of screeching vocal after screeching vocal, wobble after wobble – they’re 85 tracks – they sit within a rumbling hot-spa of splitting breaks, shuddering Juketty Footworkatty skittering 808s, beneath low-hz focussed minimalism and high-speed jungle badness. This is a Stray delight and Paradise? Paradise is the gentler, far-more-hip-hop-inclined embrace of this; these main-room 85-track floor fillers that have been his most prolific of recent excursions.
But Stray’s been making beats for far longer than 2 years, this venture is but one of so many unchartable sounds that the guy has defined, literally, within his own production. Without any knowledge of where his production might take him next but with all things considered; the releases of his past, his direction of the last 24 months and the nature of this EP right here – I feel that this may be a closing point, on this one particular volume of the Stray-saga.
Paradise. The title track. The opening floor of this extensive EP. The closing piece on a J Fogel era.
WARNING: HORROR AHEAD
You know you’re on to someone decent when their releases are diverse in sound.
See; there’s ‘different’ and then there’s ‘diverse’. I recently wrote about Survey’s Chop Chop EP: that’s different. It’s arguably diverse but its diversions are minimalist – the overall tone is sombre: it’s dark. But you pitch Paradise against track 02 on our 7-strong list, Walkonby: now that’s diverse!
Our pace is familiar – we’re still steppin’. But now, instead of treading, we’re stomping.
EZ Diesel. Stray’s 2014 career departed on a ‘mixtape’ note, though in retrospect the beautiful Since You’ve Been Gone was, again, in essence, more album than mixtape, but instead of the ‘EP’ mask this one was guised under the hip-hop affiliated ‘mixtape’ matter.
Stray’s a big time hip-hop head and its endearing to see the guy throw 11 beautifully rawganic tracks out into the listenerverse, for free! and completely unsigned, in such a humble head-nod format. An ode to his musical love affair and a fucking incredible ride through crisp snares, chimes and simply delicious instrumentals – the beautiful title track sums it up perfectly and is coupled by a 100% perfect music video which you should watch and enjoy here. But again, J only leads you 15-20%, say; “one 5th” of the way into the collection before slapping your lullaby head with a cold sweaty palm – it’s not sweethearts and bird-song kids – shit’s about to get dark-shadow.
EZ Diesel was, to Since You’ve Been Gone, what Walkonby is to Paradise: an immediate and abrupt confirmation of the producer’s ever waging travels of war. Light vs. Dark. White on Black. Juxtaposition is the near-epitome of diversity though, to coincidentally juxtapose the nature of juxtaposition, there’s a beautiful symmetry in both of the tracks – in their deliverance and steeze.
EZ Diesel is a disgustingly dark romp through the roughage, industrial, coarse and overall: frightening. Walkonby is equal in descriptive association, all of the above, but I feel like it’s an extension – a progression. It’s not ‘version II’ of ‘version I’, but, to go full circle, Walkonby could easily be the ‘different’ B-Side to an EZ Diesel A-Side. And again, it’s fucking terrifying.
There’s this macabre of eerie sampling, this sighing string, this creaking and this crunching, a big balling bass that bowls through the track in weighted swaths, the hip-hop beat all stomping abaat (‘about’ in a rough, cockney geezer accent).
2 in. 7 to go. And we’re already surrounded by madness.
MAKE MOVES JUST TO GROOVE WITH FAMILY
We interlude the ‘hype’ with a ‘groove’. Paradise is glossy, quiet-anthem-reminiscent closure for the fiends of his club-land imprint. Walkonby is the clattering clang of a hip-hopstrumental nightmare, the awakening of industry-dulled corpses to be revitalised in the EP’s now-clear diversification. And then there’s track 03…
Movements is the routes-groove that delivers the last breath of hip-hop air before transcending into a Stray sound long buried beneath new years of noises.
We dance and we relax, we slip into the nod and we kick-back our once-stomping feet. The music is warm and our imagination delivers reflective visions of our own Zion. I’ve got gulls calling, soft sand, Colombian cocktails, reefer for days, my best circles of the soundest friends and their subsequent circles of equally ‘chill’ compadres, token ‘people laughing in the park’ and ‘waves lapping on the shore’ are the backdrop to my swing in the wench hammock. Though the Nirvana seems a few ‘blocks’ down an American-bred, urban fantasy. There’s a West Coast shoreline somewhere down the way, but a Californian spread of two-story buildings, wide roads, wide ‘side walks’, soft-top convertibles, yard-residing populous streets, mesh-wire fenced gardens, high walls and grubby alleys accented by the blue bursts of open sky and elating kiss of bright sunlight make for the living course of non-threatening obstacles that we must stroll through before getting there.
Movements is my imagination personified as some hip character swaggering his way, bucket hat on, large rimmed glasses, fresh vest, knee-high shorts, sneaks on, social affiliates passing by with waves, fist-bumps, calls and finger points of cool acknowledgement – we’re on route to the concrete/sand walkways of the promenade – making funk-groove Movements.
For these few minutes, the pace is put aside and the nature is light. Dreamy. Because you gotta’ relax before you land in the 170 heart of Paradise…
Best Drum & Bass track of 2015?
Fucking strong contender!
And I can’t believe that it’s not featuring dBridge!
On opening, you’re very quickly introduced to the bounce in the drum rhythm; this junglist-breaks hop. Percussion that rolls off a living snare, there’s an analogue nature in the sound, something that conjures a very ‘real’ presence throughout – you tumble out of the crisp shining nature of the prior delights and find yourself surrounded with a more-‘roots & culture’ whisper. I think back to the opening Award Tour track of his Chatterbox EP venture; this skipping breaks sample, sparse, minimalist, jungle vibrations. Though Award Tour was alive with a glittering bokeh of funk, these twinkling keys all childhood-reminiscent, it skittered along with a forward-chasing energy, it was like a flickering tunnel, one that you sprinted down, excited, to open into the following 3 tracks, far fuller and more explosive.
Whereas here we’re not chasing forward at all, we’re bang in the centre, track 04, 3 tracks either side, whatever direction you so choose to dart in. There’s no empty space or hollow progression, there’s a musically layered progression but it’s already reasonably fully formed before too long. And it’s so clean. There’s a real ‘furrowed-brow’, ‘eyes slightly squinted’, as if trying to look past a glare, ‘fervent nod’ nature to it. It’s very serious, very real, you don’t want to skip for the fun to be had because it’s heart-string-tug nature evokes far more than that… there’s a romantic sadness in the air, in the music and sampled vocal content; “I don’t even try…”
And in here, in this clean, washed, well-dressed, rushing nature, within that fuzzy, filtered, reesed growl that literally makes me cream, we find the echoes of the grand master, the latest in the line of Fogel’s legendary sensei; the dBridge.
There’s this beautiful minimalism that exists within dBridge productions; these big, spacious, 9-minute-long pieces of gradually progressing drum & bass. They’re so thoughtful. So open.
Fore you see; there’s producers that make club tracks and then there’s producers that compose – then there’s this halfway point. It comes in many shapes and forms and is more of a massive open ground than a specific ‘halfway point’ but let’s say that there is a centre: there’s thousands of artists in there and dBridge is most certainly one of them. Club track composition – music for your lounge as is for the floor – for the drive to work as is the drive back from the late shift – for the huge tent as is for the back garden.
Stray just jumped into the halfway point – and no surprises considering that our humbling Obi-Wan-come-Quai-Gon- Jinn, Darren White (dBridge), is the selfless master at the helm of the Exit Records mothership that is Strays current bass of operations – by far the best unit he’s been embraced by thus far – the things we’ve seen him do.
Though there’s a clear definition between the straight-up deliverance of a dBridge works and Stray’s own tangle with Bridge-captured design. The king of the Exit nation pushes a gradual one-potato-two-pengtato, layer-upon-layer approach, where as Stray’s Queen is more complex – the straight forward male covets a female unpredictable and erratic in behaviour – the structure dances between a grand array of pads and samples, the breaks and percussion, the token-Stray incentive that is never comfortable in one arrangement for more than four bars. Though as complicated as she is, the constant, above the emotional turmoil, is one, singular, overshadowing feeling: one that is suited and clean cut.
It’s box-fresh, dark-room ready, slick-head prepared, liquid-set inviting, long and carefully drawn as you would sip a high-class wine, poised, perfect. So dBridge.
And it’s a return to straight, no messing drum & bass for Stray, something that’s followed a burst of electric Juke & Footwork gifts, the HUGE hip-hop ascendancy that has become the expected sound, the bass consumed electric 85 stomps… we’re back, several years gone, to the Stray I first found so long ago… the mysterious entity making the dark and evoking crème of the 170 creams.
The Queen has made it known throughout the kingdom. The gates are open. The castle Exit reveals an entrance to the forecourt, a proud manor, house Stray, it’s many sons and daughters – all children – they stand, nervous. Their elder returns.
A dark and metallic hulk. A tech-infused ranger of the shadow lands. The feared warrior. In the open courtyard the new spawn of Stray take a knee, eyes look to the floor and the haunting figure looks to the open skies, grey above the Exit’s stout walls. He has not been here before, he doesn’t know these lambs that tremble before him, the house of Stray has grown since his last departure, five long years ago.
This single strand of the Stray genome was the rusted grit that first slashed my ear canals. At the time, the blackened warrior had been coveted by a triplet of aged and aggled lunatics hailing from the Netherlands – anointed, house Stray was blessed by the Invisible covenant and in the dying light of a broken Saturday, I knew fear for the first time.
My first contact with Stray was horrible – in all of the best ways. The notion of an EP, from the man, called ‘Paradise’, back in 2010, would have suggested satire; perhaps four tracks of Doomsday-scored horror in crisp, digital, 170 form. drum & bass for the darkest of rooms – for the Tech-heads and the breakbeat blasphemers. In 2015, the title is all the more fitting for a man predominantly pushing glittery electric hip-hop beats and funky half time. Someone at the spearheading forefront of the UK’s spin on Juke & Footwork. And even 3/4 years back, someone experimenting with the absolutely soft and gorgeous fluffy clouds in the 85bpm haze.
So to see a tingling return to terror – or at least, a turn of the head from the light and back toward the dark, outside of stomping and romping half-time rhythms, inside of the OG DnB regime – well, as a fan of every avenue that the guy has explored, it’s very fucking exciting to see a potential return…
Queen isn’t terrifying and the following 5th track on the roster doesn’t touch on the eerie space and splitting breaks-hammering that I’d been previously subjugated to through 2009’s Critical exploration of Timbre and it’s subsequent VIP. But if you’re looking for the eerie and the terrifying in this EP, by track 02 you’ve already found it and if you continue just beyond this’n, you’ll find it again. Right here is a simple return of the dark and raw feeling in his straight-laced drum & bass production, things last ushered in beats like Can of Cancun (2011) and the Poison (2012) he crafted with fellow Ivy Lab boy Halogenix [speaking of whom, keep your eyes peeled because the lad, coincidentally, also dropped a new EP this Monday as well – via a label closely affiliated with Exit – and we’ve got him pinned to the interview board to tell us all about it.]
Hear we find similar jumping, jungle-ish breaks to those in the latter construction. We hear the cries of the ‘air raid’ sirens. There’s empty space for indulging in the joys of well executed drum sounds. And like any producer with many cards at hand, there’ll be some who love it and some, who maybe only fell for Stray after hearing his Traingles (2014) piece, who’ll hate it. Though we, those who love a real mix of cards on deck, will click and clatter around to the tribal dance until the next track doth cometh – with or Without U
When you’re a kid, you look at your grandparent’s cupboard with despair. It’s breakfast time and your options are muesli, shredded wheat or, because you were visiting, bland old cornflakes – like they’re some sort of chocolate covered rice crispy endorsed by an over-excited monkey… At least, that was my grandparent’s houses anyway.
In my later years, only around the teens, did I start to fiend for the “boring” breakfast blends. Muesli is actually the peng! And so is shredded wheat! Cornflakes: a classic! Timeless! Bland as they were – and still are – they were always nice. And those special k’s and wheetabixes – the ones that seemed the blandest – your Branflakes? Peeeeeeeeennng!!
Stray knows why this one is called Branflakes, perhaps he’s as infatuated with these brown variants of cereal as much as I am – and the title is a simple homage to their prowess? But the track itself? Maybe the association is simply the darker context of its composition – like, I suppose branflakes are a pretty dark-ish colour, right?
Track 06 is a dive into a world screaming Khan. If there was ever a producer that captured dubstep and the most bass-centric of electronics in a net forged in the tomes of the ancient Asian annals, it’s Khan. Stray, and many others, have made contributions to the Asian-bass collection – horns and strings, the wailing of foreign vocals calling to the higher powers, the bass.
Branflakes is all of this. It’s another, huge, stomping beast, crashing through the dance floor, its depth consuming all in its wake. Cereal does not spring to mind.
The 2nd dosage of the dark horrors that lurk within this shining young buck – those once seen in his drum & bass, now exploding through his half time excursion. The 2nd punch before the final peace – the 7th piece called Dizzy.
I knew I’d heard this one before! I knew it, I knew it!!
I scoured the entire Since You’ve Been Gone mixtape in search of this one, certain that the raw organics at play, amidst the scuttling broken beat, were ones I’d come across within that 11-track download – one that wholesomely embodied this particularly beautiful hip-hop sound of the Stray. This hip-hopstrumental dream.
After some second and third plays I came to realise that I was lost. Dizzy was not to be found. To complicate things further, the key sample sounds to look out for in a quick skim are just impossible, as Stray’s got a pretty huge bank of samples but a definite clear-cut few that he loves to use the most. If you roll through his productions of the past 3/4 years you can quickly find track couplets that openly share these prominent favourites.
Alas, today – day #2 of this write-up – I found the source. I could concrete confirm that I definitely have heard this beat before – and it was Stray that dropped it on me.
Rockwell allowed the young Fogel to take to the guest mix last year – here we were met with many yet-to-be-released pieces of Stray material. Pieces that were, at the time, nameless. They were these huge musical beasts without a master. Fans, including myself; desperate for the first whiff of their identity. Halogenix’s Porcupine & Her Waves, Sabre’s Yoga, Foreign Concept’s Make Meals and one little diamond piece called Hidden Tears.
The guest mix was basically a musical Christmas list: 36 minutes of “I want!”‘s. And despite being such an enormous part of my musical business last year, I didn’t consider it fresh-material enough to turn to in search of this final, perplexing piece of the Paradise puzzle.
This morning I did consider it. And within seconds I’d uncovered the secrets of those lovingly Hidden Tears – here was Dizzy, 12 months prior to release, residing under a careful pseudonym, or perhaps just a BBC intern’s typo. Though if you listen in to the vocals you’ll hear the summons of its prior name; “… all the tears I can’t hide.” Dizzying, right?
The relief in finding it and the tickling that it gave my trainspotter’s ego! Immeasurable, after one month of questions and confusion. The calm and tranquillity that followed – like a crescent come full circle – whole – as beautiful as the piece itself.
I’m done talking. Turn off and quiet down. The journey into Paradise is coming to a close.
Let’s wind down and asses…
The Bite the Belt collective are pretty hot on Stray – we’re all drum & bass nuts and this guys been making huge great waves in our particular scene, alongside many others. He’s there with innovating legends, guys who’ve been in the game since day, like the Exit label owner himself. He’s there with long-time favourites and the fresh new talent.
But Stray is neither old dog smashing new tricks or baby-face killing it mature-large. He’s in the limbo-state that either defines or destroys you – heaven’s gate or the burning depths of a fickle and forgotten hell.
It’s in limbo where we see so many, in almost every genre that there is, disappear into the collection. Old names with a few good old classic tracks – but nothing more. It’s probably the most noticeable in pop-rock and indie – these bands that start breaking into the big leagues, plays here and there, little interviews, then the hype and the huge first album, where once Zane Lowe would be shouting “Massive Music proudly presents, the début album from Saddled Bagheads – The Only Storm!” – they do the major festival circuit and headline a few stages the first year – moving down a few pegs the second – then they drift as they tour and work on the second album – and from then onwards its a downward spiral into becoming another Pigeon Detectives: no one.
When you find a new talent, one that you get really excited about, you can start to fear for their future. How long will they be this sick? You’re own credibility is on the line when your sharing someone’s beats with friends and then a few years down the line they start dropping stinkers – or vanish completely. And with Stray, this guy who was making these fucking dark techy numbers and then these raring breaks beats and suddenly huge stomping monsters and flash Juke and all sorts – well he just kept Raising The Bar, remixing it – the spread of his output so vast and varied yet all so incredible – as a fan, it’s fantastic, though there’s always this niggle that someone can only shit out so much gold before their roses really do start to smell like poo.
I saw this EP and was probably more scared than I was excited. But in listening: fears absolutely annihilated!
My best mate (and fellow BtB head), Joe, hadn’t heard the new EP until recently. We were in my room, jamming, sharing beats and such and of course I pulled up the latest in Stray’s works, we’re both long-time fans. A part of me could sense the similar feelings of apprehension that Joe was going through as I searched for the playlist. And then I pressed play.
What followed was a conversation of the above – concluding that this was not just another EP displaying Stray’s extraordinary spread of various talents – but him saying, personally; “Don’t worry Josh and Joe, I’m here to stay – and I’m making bangers for years…”
Stray: as relevant within the drum & bass movement as he ever was – and more so. An up & comer now surpassing his freshman years – an established name and established force to be reckoned with.
This EP stands out to us as a perfect snapshot of the man’s unbending ability to create and explore a music once stagnating and broken. And not just the genre itself, but his own direction – something always shifting – in this is J’s ability to maintain a strong hold in definition – by un-defining himself time and time again, we witness the true spectrum of colour that one man has to offer – and I still think we’re only scratching the surface.
Get your copy here