The run of the (mostly) vinyl-only RAMP sub-label Brainmath has proven a bit elusive from this side of the pond. Since first appearing on the scene with a single-sided Zomby 12" in late 2008, the imprint's string of releases steadily showcased a roster of London's burgeoning bedroom producers, capturing some of the earliest output from James Blake, SBTRKT, and Untold, among others. Brainmaths Vol. 1 brings together a large portion of the label's output for a nine-track compilation that helps us put the pieces together, but still leaves a few gaps in the story.
The collection does provide a rather rewarding trip into the not-so-distant past of UK bass music, albeit one that comes a little rough around the edges. There's a polish missing from some of these tunes, particularly on SBTRKT's pair of contributions, which makes the songs feel unfinished compared to their modern-day counterparts. But it's also this lack of professional sheen that makes those same contributions feel considerably raw and unadulterated, as if you were getting a more "pure" sense of the producer's vision. For instance, Roska's "Amhara," which he produced under the name Bakongo, is—at best—a distant cousin of his usual precise work. The track brims with an overdriven pulse, relying on a slightly off-tempo modulating synth and crunchy drums to push it along. Of SBTRKT's two efforts here, "One Week Over" is probably the furthest from the current songs fueling his crossover success. It's slow to build and places an unusual amount of static atop the beat, which is then filtered and processed as the floating pads and miniature melodies grow around it. In contrast, one track that holds up quite well is the collaboration between Airhead and James Blake, "Pembroke," a broken, bluesy selection that pleasantly recalls the days of the London wunderkind before he had moved past crafting R&B-soaked, forward-thinking beats.
Although a good portion of Brainmaths Vol.1 sounds like a group of talented producers still finding their feet, there are three tracks here that have no problem standing on their own, the first to appear being Brackles' "6AM El Gordos" (a cut which had no trouble finding its way into our Top Tracks of 2010 list). From Brackles' propulsive, house-indebted slice of funky, we eventually land on "Flexible," a monster of a tune from Hemlock boss Untold. Building layers upon layers of detailed percussion into increasingly intricate rhythms, "Flexible" comes from a time when the London producer had really locked into his formula, and listening to the track with a few years' perspective, his slant on the bass/dubstep continuum still holds weight. Lastly, the compilation closes—oddly enough—where the label began, with a tune from mystery man (much more so then than now) Zomby. "Rumours and Revelations" first appeared in 2008 as the inaugural single-sided 12" for Brainmath, but its winding melodies and bare-bones beat wouldn't have been that out of place on his last LP, Dedication, save for the fact that the tune clocks in at almost five minutes. Pinning a booming bassline and a straight-up UK funky beat underneath a handful of pads and a flute-like synth lead, the song features the now-standard Zomby formula of infectious beats and simply altered melodic sequences. Clearly, it worked just as well then as it does now.
Truthfully, Brainmaths Vol. 1 is a little light on content. With only somewhere around 10 records making up the imprint's discography, we're left wondering how there will ever be a second volume, and why nothing from Zomby's Digital Flora EP (perhaps Brainmath's most widely known release) could have been added to the nine-song tracklist. But despite these somewhat frustrating holes in the Brainmath story, this collection is still a worthwhile piece of the UK bass music puzzle, one that highlights how astonishingly fast the scene has changed and grown in just a few short years.