Like a lot of artists who were initially carving the sound that we've now come to call "bass music," Stephen Gomberg (a.k.a. Fantastic Mr Fox) began as a considerably young producer. Now, over two years after last hearing from the UK beatsmith, his music appears to have grown much in the same manner one would imagine someone coming upon their early 20s would undergo personal growth. Perhaps this is why his latest effort finds him replacing the chopped-up R&B samples that marked his superb Evelyn EP with real vocalists, and, at the same time, presenting an even sharper sense for engrossing chord structures and dense productions. Fortunately, these perceivable aesthetic adjustments result in an EP which goes on to prove that Fantastic Mr Fox is not only still in top form, but moving ever closer to the top of his class.
Gomberg's most memorable productions from his earlier output could generally be said to have emanated from the more pop-minded side of bass music—the chords were consistent and moody, the melodies strong, and the vocal cuts worked into conveniently infectious phrases. It was a somewhat treacherous—and still mostly undefined—line at the time, but one would be hard pressed to find an example where Fantastic Mr Fox didn't walk it with a tasteful balance. Since then, a number of artists (perhaps most notably SBTRKT) have continued squarely down this path, but Gomberg seems to have taken a step away from it. Don't worry, San'en's four efforts still have their share of rich, bluesy chords and inviting tones, but they are a bit less bombastic than they would have been in the hands of Gomberg's younger self. The tunes here seem more content to build in methodical, elongated steps, which makes for slightly extended track lengths. The opening "Pascal's Chorus" simmers and stirs for more than two minutes before it congeals into a solid track while "Speak Nuh," the EP's only instrumental tune, restrainedly moves towards its full potential, eventually hitting the spot only to slowly sink and revel in its stepping rhythms.
Gomberg's Black Acre labelmate Alby Daniels appears on three of the EP's four tracks, supplying the layers of vocals that render the productions into more song-oriented affairs. Daniels' voice is not as somberly weighted as a James Blake or a Sampha, but instead exists more in the vein of a floaty falsetto, taking harmonic cues from modern emotive R&B while realizing them with a touch of restraint and underground sensibility. Fortunately, Daniels' vocals are not left out to hang above everything else; instead, they are chopped, processed, and arranged in a manner that allows them to sit nicely in the compositions—never stealing the listener's attention while still acting as the main sonic guide, and, in the end, making for a more complex and rewarding listen.
In a 2010 interview, Gomberg said of his music, "I kind of make songs that are danceable enough to be played in clubs, but that’s about as far as it goes." This sentiment seems to have remained, as each song on San'en is a conceivable choice for a certain type of DJ mix, but ultimately has just as much to offer the home listener. Either way, the productions Fantastic Mr Fox has put together here are of an undeniable quality, and have us crossing our fingers that another two years won't go by before Gomberg adds to his increasingly impressive run.