Various Artists Tales from the Darkside
It's a bit hard to believe that London's Unknown to the Unknown got its start as a YouTube channel that functioned as a repository and showcase for little-known and forgotten tunes. Since its establishment a little more than a year ago, the label, run by Hot City's DJ Haus, has since amassed a dense catalog of releases by an impressive roster that includes the likes of 5kinandbone5, Nightwave, Sinden, and Dubbel Dutch, among others. Now, UTTU has dropped Tales from the Darkside, a compilation of 12 "demented darkside bangers," just in time for Halloween.
If there's one element that all UTTU releases share, it's the aesthetic that permeates the label's album art—a blend of allusions to facets of '80s, '90s, and current pop culture coupled with font choices that test the very limits of legibility. Tales From The Darkside is no different in this respect; its cover, which sets a retro-looking video game ninja before a cityscape backdrop with subtly hidden allusions to arcade classic Space Invaders, showcases the unabashed reverence that the UTTU crew has for all things old school. The art isn't just an attention-grabber though; the ninja, who aims his sword directly at the viewer, is a good indicator for the type of music that can be found on Tales from the Darkside—it's bold, brash, and unafraid to get up in the listener's face.
The album opens with UTTU newcomer LOGOS' "Devils," a melange of videogame sounds that's as reminiscent of an arcade as the record's cover art. The beat, made up of assorted weird blips, clicks, gunshots, and what sounds like camera shutters, is hard to get a read on—that is, until the malevolent, grime-influenced bass (which recalls Wiley's eski sounds) puts things firmly in perspective with a hearty serving of low end. The last minute and a half of the track, however, plays host to a jarring yet interesting change as the banging percussion, blips, and bass throbs make way for blissed-out synths while continuing to churn underneath. Detboi and label head DJ Haus follow up with "Nightbreed," a twisted garage-house jam that showcases a steady 4/4 beneath a warping synth lead, while South Yorks Militia comes in third with "Short Back & Sides," a back-to-basics affair featuring skittering percussion, dirty "wubs," and a plethora of samples that includes the requisite snippets of Jamaican dub and '80s arcade effects (try spotting the Pacman sample buried deep in the mix). Following this is DJ Narrows' monolithic, old-school-dubstep-indebted "Android," whose crunchy sub-bass and 2-step-influenced backbeat seem equally at home soundtracking club nights and videogame boss fights.
The compilation's middle four tracks—TOYC's "Levy," Lokiboi's "Pump It," DJ Q's "More Than You," and Mista Men's "Relentless"—form a strong core for the record as a whole, and probably best showcase the wide range of sounds UTTU has at its disposal. "Levy," the rumpshaker of the bunch, starts off with an abundance of 808 sounds and claps before segueing into a genre-bending, percolating lead that's equal parts UK funky and house. "Pump It" is exactly what we've come to expect from Lokiboi—heavy, shuffling house with ample amounts of swing. As an obscure sample intones the words "pump it," the backbeat is punctuated every so often by percussive, metallic sounds. "More Than You" is an interesting genre bender, as well; its old-school 2-step sounds, dirty wubs, and sexy female sample may be familiar hallmarks of garage, but its organ sounds and touches of purple-toned synth squalls push the production just deep enough into foreign territory to make the track fresh and interesting. Label stalwarts Mista Men also put forth a strong effort with "Relentless," a garage-house shuffler featuring understated bass and soulful R&B samples.
The last third of the album begins with Checan's "Killer Bee," which plays host to the fusion of a delicate, music-box-like lead and the caustic low-end growls of a sweltering grime instrumental. Palace's remix of opener "Devils" manages to rein in some of the frenetic energy from LOGOS' original, imbuing it with a lumbering, stomping beat while remaining faithful to its source material. The rest of this segment of the record, however, falters a bit in comparison. DJ Haus & Matrixxman's titular track, "Tales from the Darkside," offers more of the same dirty, aggressive bass leads featured throughout the album. It isn't bad in itself, but it seems to suffer in terms of placement; after a number of other shuffling garage-house tracks, it just seems a bit samey in comparison to the rest of the album. Bonus track "UFO" by DJ Narrows switches things up a bit, but not to particularly great effect; its beat, built around a stripped-down gallop, plods on underneath a bass lead that ventures a bit too far into mindless wobble territory.
All in all, however, the tracks on Tales from the Darkside are mostly good in and of themselves, but it seems as though they might have benefitted more from being released as individual singles instead of as features on a compilation. The sonic pallette for many tracks isn't particularly diverse; most are built around a garage-meets-house formula that emphasizes low end—a sound that can quickly become a tad repetitive on a nearly hour-long release.
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