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  • Filed under: Review
  • 01/12/2012

Various Gem Drops Two

When and how the LA beat scene expanded its influence all the way up the coast to Oregon and Washington is something that's hard to pinpoint, but the fact is, it happened. Gem Drops Two, the second free compilation in as many years from the Portland-based Dropping Gems label, is the most comprehensive collection yet to document the resulting scene. While the tracklist doesn't exclusively consist of homegrown artists, the 20 tracks on display here frame a time and place for the entire scope of West Coast beat music, which finds the new-found hubs of the Pacific Northwest intertwined with the genre's homeland of Southern California and beyond.

The challenge of putting together any compilation (especially one of this length) is doing so with a sense of cohesiveness, and Gem Drops Two struggles to present a theme that is easy to follow. But this shouldn't be discouraging, as the contributions here are generally solid. Impressive tracks from relative newcomers bookend the release with New Jersey's mndsgn enveloping the listener in a sunken slice of G-funk on "intenshnnns" while Wires for Salu's "Wild" does a fine job of serving as a contemplatively blissful closing piece of boom-bap. In between, the gleaming presence of bass music is undeniable on a number of the efforts, and the artists who dip into the futuristic sounds of their UK counterparts usually end up better for it. Co. fee's "Florence" and Nocow's "Sever Ties" are especially impressive in this manner—albeit in quite different directions—with the former crafting a coke-rap-meets-bliss-hop beat, and the latter channeling a bit of Sepalcure-style sample manipulation to add to a host of rich sonic textures. Of course, there are a few bumps in the road along the way though, with Daedelus' misguided sample-collage-meets-juke-meets-downtempo "California" and the bizarrely proggy space beats of Timeboy and The Great Mundane proving to be the most extraneous of cuts.

But the blemishes are truly brief and few, and the patient listener is eventually rewarded in full with three absolutely stunning tracks rising above the pack, the first of which is credited to burgeoning Texan LDFD. Wrapped in a swirling ensemble of off-kilter synth meanderings, "SkiFREE" rolls with a sluggish beat that begs for proper head-nodding but never allows you to be completely sure where your neck should snap next. Shortly thereafter, rising PDX producer/vocalist Natasha Kmeto unveils the compilation's most repeatable listen with "Belly," a furiously intricate endeavor which layers (what we're assuming are) Kmeto's own vocal harmonies behind a decidedly tribal beat. Even better are the touches of smooth chords which float in and out of the effort at precisely the right moments. It should be no surprise that Gem Drops' most developed outing comes from Ryan York's Asura moniker. "The First Wound (Burning Water)" begins with almost complete silence, serving as a welcome rest from the almost non-stop sonic impressions which precede it. Eventually building to a soaring composition, the track is led by expertly manipulated drum programming, twisting and turning at every chance yet still maintaining a groove worth following. Gorgeous melodies then build on top of each other, moving through different sections with subtle tweaks and intriguing rearrangements, resulting in a track that is at times reminiscent of Aphex Twin's more musically inclined endeavors, or perhaps a more serious, modern Dntel.

Whether or not intended by its curators, this collection is an almost-perfect picture of the scene from which it stems—a fractured, but still vibrant West Coast movement of beatsmiths. And even with Low End Theory well beyond its fifth year of existence (not to mention its ongoing expansion around the globe), the LA-rooted beat scene—to its credit—still seems unwilling to lay down its feet in any one place, thanks in a large part to the droves of talented producers operating just beneath the surface of the genre's bigger names. Gem Drops Two has done us all the favor of gathering many of these talents in one place, and for the hard-to-argue-with price of "pay what you want."

To download Gem Drops Two, head here.

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