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Rhapsody In Blue: Blocks & Escher

Drum & bass futurists Blocks & Escher promised an album four years ago through Goldie’s Metalheadz label. Now it’s finally arrived, but what caused the hold-up? Here, the duo talk expectations, high standards and how they finally broke their creative stasis to make a masterpiece...

Bust ups. Car park fist fights. Prison sentences. Vicious acrimonious splits resulting in major High Court settlements. Six-day self-finding mushroom binges in the Highlands. Tabloid scandals, legal wrangles, studio strangles, love triangles... absolutely none of this happened during the making of Blocks & Escher’s long, long, long awaited debut album ‘Something Blue’. But it really feels like it ought to have done. Or at least something outrageous should have happened to cause the near four-year gap between the announcement and arrival of the LP.

Not even the longest album marketing schemes stretch further than a year, especially after such a strong and sturdy rise to become next gen d&b artists as widely-tipped and respected as this London/Brighton duo. After breaking through on labels as exulted as Horizons and Digital Soundboy and developing their own Narratives imprint to buy-on-sight status, leaving fans hanging on for such a long time, without so much as a cheeky 12”? Surely that’s too much of a risk in today’s volatile market. In a scene as prone to beef as drum & bass, surely there has to have been a drama. Right? “Wrong,” laughs Phil ‘Blocks’ Smith. “Sorry to disappoint you.  There’s been no drama or scandal. It was just a case of it being announced before we even started writing it. Before we even started thinking about it.”

SOMETHING OLD

Here’s the truth: ‘Something Blue’ was somewhat willed into existence by Goldie. Inspired by their precision-sculpted evergreen 12” he’d signed for his seminal label Metalheadz (‘Moods/Razor’ — a record that still tears holes out of souls and speakers just as brutally as it did in 2014), he revealed to the world that an album would soon come. Just maybe not quite as soon as he had hoped, perhaps.

“The thing is, you get Goldie on the phone, that proper ball of fire that he is, and the conversation has a life of its own,” Phil continues. “I don’t think I agreed or disagreed on our phone call, but suddenly everyone’s talking about the album. And you know what it’s like in this day and age. You say an album’s coming and everyone expects it within months.”

“I wasn’t even up for it initially,” admits Will ‘Escher’ Hansen, the bespectacled member of the operation (so you know who’s who). “I didn’t know what the point of an album was these days. Everyone’s got such a short attention span nowadays, what’s the point of doing one? But Phil persuaded me over time, saying how an album can be a statement.”

“I’m a romantic about music,” continues Phil. “As is Will. We wanted the album to have real meaning and be special. It had to, or there really was no point in doing one. It’s got to have a journey or a theme or a concept. So you go in with that mindset and you put yourself under so much pressure, you don’t get anywhere. It took us a long time to even get into second gear.”

SOMETHING NEW

It’s not the scandal we wanted, but it’s the much more realistic, widespread self-loathing epidemic we deserve. A condition that every creative person on the planet will identify with: writer’s block, a black dog that always barks at the wrong time. Turning your brain inside out, trying to squeeze out half-baked ideas that don’t even exist is hard enough, but try doing it with a strong fan-base and a man with such high expectations as Goldie watching. Waiting. Welcome to a whole new level of self-critical pain. “There was just nothing there,” states Will. “I just couldn’t do anything for a long time. We put so much pressure on ourselves, just nothing worked at all. Obviously it did eventually come together, and when it did, it flowed incredibly well and all felt very natural. But that’s easy to say now. At the time it was very stressful.”

Naturally, organically, effortlessly; throw whatever cliché you like into the mix, ‘Something Blue’ did come together, and did so in a remarkable way. The latest in a sterling line of exemplary contemporary drum & bass albums on Metalheadz — Dom & Roland’s ‘Last Refuge Of A Scoundrel’, Goldie’s ‘The Journey Man’, SCAR’s ‘The Orkyd Project’, Artificial Intelligence’s ‘Timelines’ — Blocks & Escher’s debut LP lives up to both fans’ and their own expectations. Just as Phil described, it’s a journey with meaning and a clear theme: a body of work with an oceanic narrative that draws you into its sombre, reflective and often abrasive universe from beginning to end. ‘Something Blue’ captures both the duo’s unique sound and technique, and that crisp, foreboding essence of foundation drum & bass the duo grew up on.

SOMETHING BORROWED

Clearly the wait — for a bonus cliché — has been worth it. It’s clear within seconds of pressing play. The woozy, jazzy yearns of opener ‘Vigil’ subtly hint at where they left us on ‘Moods’, before the album enshrouds us with nine more examples of their signature rippling atmospheres, delicate ebb and flow emotions and tidal bass textures. Not to mention their tsunami drum-work. Overwhelmingly spacious, insistent, instinctive and detailed, if you’re still looking for drama, it’s in Blocks & Escher’s drums. It’s the reason why everyone anticipated an album quite so much in the first place; no one does drums quite like Blocks & Escher. This is a fact that’s been evident from their earliest outings, such as 2011’s groaning rim-shot heaver ‘Shadow Play’ or 2012’s pulsating, evocative ‘Shiver’, and is now abundantly clear throughout the entire album. The rolling jazzy drums of ‘One Touch’, the rattled snare and Q&A hypnosis of ‘The Sea’, the dangerously skittered shuffle of ‘Your Ghost’; these aren’t merely elements to drive the track forward, but rather tonal and dynamic instruments that sing within the rhythm. “I can’t explain how nice it is to have someone like Will turn the drums into something with such character,” states Phil. “What he does to the drums is amazing. It’s really simple, but the blemishes and artefacts and character are always so real. It’s not about crazy productions or plugins or compression, it’s about soul.”

Will puts everything down to his habitual use of one of drum & bass’s most iconic tools: a battered old EMU sampler which he runs everything through, just to ramp up and give character. Explaining how taking things out is always more important than adding things in, he’s just as quick to review Phil’s role in their two-headed ops. 

“Phil has this mad knack with samples,” says Escher. “He can create an atmosphere and blend things you wouldn’t think would work. They’re always so smooth and really rounded. It’s great working together. I’ll send him a loop and he’ll put it into a completely different context I’d never have imagined. Likewise if he sends me something — we’re opposites in that sense, and it really works.”

A great snapshot of this mutual symmetry can be found on their Narratives label, as both artists released solo EPs before the album process caused their temporary release silence. Escher’s ‘Rugged/ Late Snare’ is a dark, mindboggling drumfunk lesson, while Blocks’ ‘Séance’ is a dank, heart-rending downtempo session. It’s a rare case of being able to pinpoint exactly what both artists bring to the partnership, how they both complement each other and how their sound is much more than the sum of its parts. But while they’re opposites in their approach and aesthetic, they’re kindred in vision: Blocks & Escher will never compromise.

SOMETHING BLUE

“We never sit on the fence. That’s really important,” stresses Phil. “It could be very deep and emotional or pretty gnarly and heavy, but we’ll never compromise the natural direction of the music. It has to evoke something.”

This ardent attitude is evident in all directions. Firstly, their label; Narratives may have slowed down to almost one annual release during the album process, but it’s consistently been responsible for a beguiling series of forward-thinking releases from the duo themselves and other rising acts such as Overlook, Rhyming In Fives and Concealed Identity. Secondly, it’s evident in the very time it took to release the album; no matter how anticipated it was, they were never going to settle for anything less than the best they could possibly do. They explain how “every tune on there should be on there”, and that it would have been “more pro table to do more tracks and get more 99ps coming in, but that’s not what it’s about, it’s about wanting something proper and from the heart.”

Finally, it’s in their honesty and their respect for us, the listeners. “All I want to say is, don’t believe the hype,” remarks Blocks, wryly. “A lot of people are saying a lot of amazing things about this album, which is great, but I don’t want there to be an anti-climax. The wait has been a benefit in this sense, it’s built up excitement we never could have done personally. But you need to make up your own mind. I want people to listen to it themselves. I don’t want to tell people what it’s about. That’s for them to put their own narrative on it. It should be personal. It’s for you to interpret, to play, to DJ, to make your own story, create your own memories and nd your own perspective.”

Scandals, wrangles, strangles and triangles aren’t necessary. This is music from the purest creative place, and no matter how long they leave it between releases, it seems Blocks & Escher music will always be worth waiting for, and always worth paying attention to.

Want more? Check out this month’s d&b reviews.

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