The opening chords on the title track of San Francisco resident Reilly Steel's ICU EP sound strikingly similar to the lead single from Sepalcure's 2011 debut LP, "Pencil Pimp." The stabs are a bit higher on "ICU," and the crackle of white noise is more pronounced on "Pencil Pimp," but the two-tone melodies match. The semblance between the songs is a blessing and a curse for Steel, a dynamic that persists throughout his EP; although his work demonstrates some genuine skill with lush and clattering post-dubstep sounds, his songs don't always stand out from the scene's high-profile releases.
Like "ICU," "Takin' Me" aligns Steel's work with the softened, layered, and reverb-heavy sounds championed by artists like Om Unit. The brassy diva vocals, cranking snare rolls, lurching bass notes, and dizzy synths oscillating overhead are well selected and composed with an apt hand, even if they're taken from familiar terrain. Herein lies the rub with Steel's EP: many of the tunes simply put, don't offer much in the way of personal flare. At times, like on "ICU," Steel's influences speak louder than he does.
However, there are flashes where the young producer demonstrates the potential to mold components of layered, bass-heavy music into a shape he can call his own. The sound of lapping water takes a central role on the plodding, dub-tinged "Inside," mingling with quiet drum hits, the hiss of white noise, lurking synth chords, and vocal samples that are alternately pitched up to a squeal or muffled into reverb. The song stands out from the EP's three other original productions in its patience. The sparse beat doesn't take aim at the dancefloor like "The Healing," a track which edges toward house while relying upon vertical drops into rapid-fire percussion. In contrast, "Inside" distinguishes itself by flirting with introverted darkness.
Remixers Mak & Pasteman, Jaws Da Jormungand, and Cosmic Revenge each take stabs at flavoring Steel's rhythms with their own personal touches. Da Jormungand injects echoing, fast-paced darkness into Steel's fuzzy, house-leaning version of "Takin Me," editing the diva vocals into an alien growl. However, it's "ICU" that gets the most attention from remixers; Mak & Pasteman offer two versions of the tune, but Cosmic Revenge steals the spotlight with his loopy synth notes and sharp claps.
As for Steel, his talent for rearranging familiar elements of the bass-music sphere is ultimately his greatest asset, but it also represents his biggest challenge. Steel's talent sometimes outshines his creativity, propelling his work into the same league as a host of other savvy producers without distinguishing him sonically. Creating dizzy and reverb-heavy bass beats is an increasingly competitive task; as such, demonstrating tasteful and adroit production can be as important as using those rhythms to carve out a distinct voice.