Nearly every track on Bass Clef’s Reeling Skullways, the London-based producer’s first long-player for Punch Drunk, feels like the beginning of a long journey.
It’s set up by the short, sparkly "Keep Hoping Machine Running," which hints that the destination is not bass music—the genre which Ralph Cumbers is largely known for—but more of a stylistic spin driven by the artist’s soul-stirring passions for the classic sounds of Chicago and Detroit. His proclivity for acid house is a major part of the trip, best exhibited by "Electricity Comes From Other Planets," one of two epic jams on the album. It has juicy analog synths, a marching 4/4 beat, and a searing melody that works its way in and out of the track. The euphoric track clocks in at eight-plus minutes, but never goes out of control, displaying patience, discipline, and restraint, all of which work to its advantage. The other great track here is "A Rail Is a Road and a Road is a River," which lasts more than 12 minutes and could have worked just as well if it were even longer. Beginning with a spacey, ambient prologue that remains on the tastier side of prog-rock, the song transitions dramatically when echo-drenched drums, acid synth stabs, and a robust bassline simply take over. From there, the track just cooks and cooks, all the elements working together for a near-perfect, rave-worthy experience.
Other highlights include the understated, sub-tropical, ska-inspired (and awesomely titled) "Stenaline Metranil Solar Flare" and "Embrace Disaster," an elegant, Chicago-style groover that recalls the schoolboy exuberance of Virgo Four. Taking cues from the Motor City, "Walworth Road Acid Trapdoor" and "Hackney - Chicago - Jupiter" each possess an alien tech-house DNA that might be shared with the freakiest of Moodymann and Theo Parrish productions. The album even ends on a high note, as closer "Ghost Kicks in the Spiral" is an experimental piece that features warm keyboard tones, a pretty rhythm-and-melody interplay, and a subtle acid undercurrent.
If Reeling Skullways has a weakness, it’s that the effort pushes few new buttons and does little to challenge established boundaries. Leftfield dubstep artists like Bass Clef—a trained musician who breaks out his trombone when he performs live and has included brass samples on previous releases to novel effect—have set the bar high for themselves. While it's impressive that he has the skill set to produce in a variety of styles, real artististic value comes with real innovation. Bass Clef may have created a solid album, but, in the end, this lovely exercise leaves a sense that it was all a bit too easy for him.