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Compilation of the Month: Various Artists ‘Nervous Horizon Vol. 4’

East London’s Nervous Horizon label crystallises its sonic signature on its fourth compilation, mutating dancehall rhythms into a post-industrial, experimental space

The name Nervous Horizon has begun to chime with contemporary life, implying a sense of foreboding for something that’s currently just out of view. Look in any direction, and a fog of uncertainty obscures any clear idea of where we’re all headed. Amongst this, the Hackney Wick-based label’s austere aesthetic is finding its place. When the year 2000 was approaching, and a fear of the Millennium Bug led to predictions of planes falling out of the sky, the East London area’s warehouses were rocking to the sound of tech-step drum & bass; dystopia arriving at hyper-speed, out of the optimism of the ’90s. There’s something similarly dark and brooding about Nervous Horizon, soaking up the psychogeography of those same streets. But theirs is a creeping dread, hovering mostly around the 100bpm mark, echoing the slow dread of the years that have followed.

TSVI, aka label co-founder Guglielmo Barzacchini, opens this fourth compilation with ‘Tambo’. Built around a huge dancehall kick, its organic, minimalist percussion weaves around a relentless thump; squeaks and bleeps attesting to its post-industrial origins. Then, Canadian producer Ultima Esuna introduces an icy pad and disembodied vocals over a decaying dembow on ‘Salidas’, the stabbing bass giving it an uneasy edge. Josi Devil’s ‘Breathe Easy’ does give some sense of space — its opening melody distilling the bitter-sweetness of much trap — but then comes the drop, and we’re back into the fidgety disquiet of off-key atmospheres and rhythmic exhalations.

Fellow co-founder Wallwork highlights Nervous Horizon’s core mutant dancehall sound. Consisting of little more than drums and bass, the devil is in the details. Subtle effects fill in space and accentuate the rhythms. Ehua’s ‘Deepstaria’ adds a dub-techno twist, with reverb and delay giving it an expansive presence, while Happa’s ‘Glacial Breaks’ has a grime influence to its melodies and bass, delivering maximalist heft to the tempo. It feels like a lift-off point. With double-time jungle breaks, hoovers and weighty 808 bass, Aquarian’s ‘Saule Dub’ goes full dancefloor delirium; crystalline pads interjecting for a dreamy IDM feel. SIM’s ‘Hallow’ seems to suck in air each time its kick hits, the surrounding sound ducking down. Seven Orbits’ ‘Tallinn’ is so distorted and degraded it feels like it’s crumbling around its central bass pulse.

Chrisman’s ‘Mediocre’ is the first to venture into speedier club territory. With stuttering drums and staccato vocal chops, it’s a seamless progression: a fug of swirling synths and FX is punctuated by mechanical percussion. DJ JM’s ‘Rammed’ continues this, but less hazily, as bass interplays with alien textures and soundscapes. Melbourne’s DJ Plead, one of the label’s most successful associates, then marks the apex of this section in tempo and vibe, his trademark drums rolling over a melodic hook.

It leaves TSVI to close out, book-ending the compilation with ‘Drama Demon’. A collision between dancehall and footwork, it’s loaded with tension, speeding at 160bpm in some directions and creeping at 80bpm in others. It makes for a disorientating climax.

Inspired by stalwarts of the UK bass scene such as Hessle Audio, Nervous Horizon have taken their time, paid their dues and experimented with various sounds along the way. On ‘Nervous Horizon Vol. 4’, it’s clear that they’ve crystallised a sonic signature all of their own.

Want more? Read our 2021 The Sound Of feature with Nervous Horizon, and listen to a mix of tracks from its catalogue, here