Terror Danjah is, undeniably, a grime legend—a key player in the genre's birth and a recurring character throughout its turbulent life span. Few producers can claim to have had such an important—if occasionally overlooked—effect on the UK's underground music landscape over the past decade. In the early years, his lively, richly textured instrumentals provided contrast to the notable emptiness of Wiley's eskibeat, laying the early foundations for UK funky with their shuffling, asymmetric rhythms and mid-heavy synth lines. More recently, his work on Hyperdub and Butterz, along with his own label, Hardrive, has provided the driving force behind grime's triumphant return to UK dancefloors—repositioning it as a genre where the producer is the star of the show, rather than a supporting player behind a stream of vocalists. Yet despite this string of achievements, Dark Crawler, his second artist album, is still the most accomplished, fully realized thing he's ever released.
It may seem like a condescending statement to make about a musician who's more than a decade into his career, but Dark Crawler is the sound of Terror Danjah hitting artistic maturity. 2009's Gremlinz collection—which compiled much of his early work, stripped of vocalists—showcased his ability to lay the foundations of a grime anthem, but ultimately, that's what those tracks were: foundations. They were instrumentals built for vocalists, many already cemented classics, difficult to separate from their distinctive vocal contributors. Meanwhile, on 2010's Undeniable, his first proper artist album, he used the extra breathing room to explore a variety of different territories—from hip-hop and R&B to classic UK hardcore—but at the occasional expense of resigning his distinctive sonic personality to the back seat.
Album number two then, is where everything falls into place. It's the first time that Danjah—or, arguably, any grime producer—has delivered an instrumental album that feels like a truly fully formed and cohesive statement. It's structured carefully around repeat appearances of the eponymous instrumental, a dark but hectic grime beat that has been reworked into an overture-like intro, an outro, and three vocal interludes. Throughout, he dips playfully into other genres—if anything, more so than ever—but he never loses sight of his own production style; this time around, these forays into new tempos and genres sound like the work of an artist who knows what he does well, confidently stepping out into new areas. Take the downtempo, swaggering 'Full Hundred," for example; it's proper instrumental hip-hop, only painted with Danjah's familiar sonic palette. Meanwhile, "Delicate" and "You Make Me Feel" are subtle, finely crafted versions of the R&G blueprint that Danjah has been toying with throughout his career, laced with affectionate nods to Timbaland-style urban pop, and complemented by sultry vocal contributions from repeat collaborators Meleka and Ruby Lee Ryder.
Whenever vocalists appear on the album, Terror Danjah feels more in control than ever. Whereas in the past, his beats have provided a platform for MCs to make their own mark, here the contributing vocalists are clearly supporting characters, carefully selected and used sparingly. By repeating the same "Dark Crawler" instrumental for each of the vocal interludes, Terror Danjah accentuates the differences between his chosen MCs; Riko Dan is dark and angry; Birmingham's Mayhem, Deadly and Saf One are chaotic and occasionally clumsy, like an outtake from some classic pirate radio set; Trim and Kozzie are witty, esoteric, and ooze personality.
The most pleasing thing about Dark Crawler, however, is that it really optimizes everything that's likeable about Terror Danjah's brand of grime production. The tracks that open and close the album, for instance, are full of the distinct, slightly over-the-top cinematic tension that recalls the influence of classic computer-game soundtracks—"Mirror's Edge," in particular, sounds like it should be playing over the final stages of some late-'90s beat 'em up. Meanwhile, "Air Max PO," a collaboration with relative newcomer Champion, is the perfect embodiment of the dancefloor-ready brand of grime that has been rapidly taking over the UK underground during the past couple of years. In short, Dark Crawler is a showcase of the best that both Terror Danjah, and grime in general, has to offer—and a testament to why, in 2012, neither should be overlooked.