Since first appearing on the scene, Atlanta's Michael Rathbun (a.k.a. Distal) has been responsible for such a prolific output that it's easy to forget he's really only been releasing music for about two years. Even with a mass of releases to his name (both in solo and collaborative roles), Rathbun's discography has yet to grow stale within the bass-music community, and Civilization, his first chance to display his strengths in a more complete fashion via the full-length format, continues the man's impressively steady run.
Although the argument could be made that Distal has been a chameleon of sorts throughout his brief career, there have always been a few underlying themes to his production—mainly the ever-present influence of juke/footwork. Obviously, this is not a trait Rathbun picked up directly from the source, but the Southerner's penchant for the types of spastic 808s and chopped-to-hell samples that define the Chicago-born genre is undeniable. In some ways, footwork has risen on an almost-parallel path with artists like Distal (not to mention his cohorts at the Embassy label, for which he co-heads), many of who have wholeheartedly incorporated the once-regional sound into their own styles. At this point, many of the trademarks of the genre have simply been absorbed by the bass-music continuum, making them almost indistinguishable amongst the other pieces of microgenres that appear under the same umbrella. This convergence of sounds and styles forms a near-perfect climate for Distal's productions to exist, as he can nimbly move amongst a number of different feels and tempos over the course of Civilization while still firmly planting his output in a single conceptual space.
As it turns out, only a few moments of straight-up juke grace the album's tracklist, with "Drop Like This" and "Boca Ratawn" serving as the most obvious examples. But even these selections fold extra layers atop the frantic skeletons, incorporating an extra sense of space and a smoothing of the edges that originally marked the lo-fi, often-sloppy production associated with the traditional juke aesthetic. The bulk of the album actually spends most of its energy in a half-time slink, wrapping processions of skittering hats, rims, claps, and arps around monstrous kicks and toms. For the most part, Civilization houses the kind of music that encourages a slow, grinding dancefloor, one where big steps and wide turns dominate the lower body, while the upper half is left to fill the spaces in between. Surprisingly—especially given that this LP appears on Pinch's Tectonic imprint—there is little focus on the darker side of the sound spectrum here, and songs like album opener "The Sun," "Preach on Hustle," and "Anti-Cool" incorporate a healthy amount of gliding G-funk and slippery R&B into their palettes. When Distal does land on more sinister moments, such as the dub/dancehall-influenced "Rattlesnake" and the loaded step of "House Party of Five," his productions do yield a more powerful response. The tracks are never aggressive, but they are noticeably more rooted in a menacing mind frame via brooding bass tones and a much more dissonant interplay between chord progressions and melodies.
The most rewarding selections from Civilization often seem to be its most adventurous, and although these will likely not reveal themselves as the album's most potent dancefloor weapons, they do show Distal successfully pushing into rather intriguing territory. Two cuts stick out in particular. First is "Gorilla," which appears on the album's second half and wraps the listener in a virtual jungle of sound with a cricket-like layer of shakers and intricately tuned toms before diving into an increasingly tense sonic world, one topped off by a haunting, string pluck-esque melody fit for use in a space-age horror film. Four tracks later, we land on the pleasantly unexpected album closer, "She Wears Pearls," a tune that folds samples of saxophone and cascading keys amongst military snare rolls. These bits are syncopated and arranged into a perfect rhythm that floats alongside four-on-the-floor kick drums. It's an impressively executed combination and a fine example of what makes Distal and Civilization stand above their contemporaries. Clearly, Rathbun is a talented producer, and his debut full-length appears to imply that he's nowhere near to running out of ideas.