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20YAT #31 Roni Size Reprazent – New Forms

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UK album chart peak: #46

As 1996 turned into 1997, Radio One began promoting one of their dance music programmes with a regular trailer in which a bratty teen accosts the listener. “Ask yourself this question – what will I be listening to in ten years time?” she asks. “Britpop? Nah! Metal? Do me a favour! Handbag? You’re ’avin’ a laugh!” Each suggested genre is accompanied by a comedically generic pastiche of the respective music, before a rolling drum’n’bass breakbeat cuts through. “Take a tip from me,” the teenager finishes up, “the future is here. One In The Jungle – music for the next generation.”

The promo spot is as good an indication as any of the state of drum’n’bass, jungle and breakbeat in the mid-nineties: popular enough to have its own Radio One show, regarded as something that fans of guitar music and cheesy house could get behind and, perhaps most saliently, the proposed sound of the next ten years. That last prophecy turned out to be laughably overambitious, but the sincere belief in it nonetheless created fertile ground for the handful of drum’n’bass producers who were attempting, in the wake of Goldie’s crossover hit debut, to make artist-driven, album-length contributions to a genre that was normally reserved for anonymous, club-based singles: amid all the backward-looking music that had been so popular for the past three years or so, here – apparently – was the future.

Twenty years on, that sense of forward thrust is still audible on New Forms, perhaps the most artistically successful drum’n’bass album. Even though some of the rattling computerised percussion sounds dated now, and the production is surprisingly thin compared to modern electronic music (and, indeed, that of its age), an addictiveness that seems resistant to such technical criticism courses through the entire album: when Dynamite MC introduces the record as “something you’ve never heard before” over nothing more than sci-fi whooshes and Clive Deamer’s fluttering breakbeats, it feels impossible to deny. Equally, the upright bass lick that forms the backbone of Brown Paper Bag, flecked by so many sputtering snares and hi-hats, still carries an air of supreme confidence – here was an album proudly aware that it was at the vanguard. The pulsating pop synthesis of Heroes, the motorik funk of Watching Windows and closer Destination, with its future-facing interpretation of Memphis horns, all shimmer with self-assurance. As with all the best debut albums, New Forms leaves you longing to be in Roni Size’s gang.

Of course, drum’n’bass didn’t become the hegemonic electronic music of the next decade that Radio One predicted in 1997. Indeed, a combination of overexposure (probably not helped by New Forms winning the Mercury Prize), ill-advised collaborations, the rise of grime and the increasing availability of cheap home-recording software in the early noughties left it with little cultural territory by 2007 beyond student club nights. From one point of view, that’s an unfortunate reality to follow such initial promise. From another, though, the fact that that legacy hasn’t detracted too fatally from New Forms’ quality twenty years on is perhaps the biggest testimony to the richness of Roni Size’s musical vision here. New Forms was the future, once; so convincing is its worldview for the duration of its running time, you might almost believe it could be once again.


Also out this week:
Paul Weller – Heavy Soul (Go! Discs). Chart peak #2
David Devant & His Spirit Wife – Work, Life, Miscellaneous (Rhythm King). Chart peak #70
Ry Cooder – Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit). Chart peak #40