Despite two justifiably hyped Burial records and an overhyped Distance LP, the concept of a dubstep full-length is still relatively new. Indeed, in a genre dominated by white-labels and dubplates, an EP can seem like an eternity. Pinch, therefore, is already essentially breaking new ground by format alone. Underwater Dancehall is two CDs; the first disc’s tracks are repeated on a second disc in instrumental form. The vocals add energy and accessibility to the songs, but it’s the second disc — the cold sheen of the tracks as they exist in their instrumental form — that’s the better of the two: The instrumentals outshine the others so immediately and so bluntly.
The first track is Pinch’s “Qawaali,” released as a twelve-inch last year on Planet-Mu. Here, it exists as “Brighter Day,” featuring Juakali, a talented Brooklyn emcee aligned with the venerable East Coast Dubwar crew. But the vocals rob the song of its quiet sparseness, which made it one of last year’s best dubstep tracks. Juakali adds danceability and energy, but it detracts from the song’s potential power.
Even if the vocals offer a sense of familiarity and immediacy, the songs are far more interesting when given the time and space to unfold on their own. In the album’s worst moments, the addition of female emcee Yolanda turns moody, paranoid electronics into syrupy ’90s R&B that borders on being unlistenable. Vocals completely change the pacing and density of the tracks, and it is in their pacing that they shine.
Pinch’s strength is in his ability to balance subtly with forward narration. Although his contemporaries are content with looping blocks of material, Pinch is able to give his songs a momentum that rivals any major dubstep producer’s. You want to keep listening, and not simply because of the standard build-and-drop formula of so many songs in the genre. Pinch quietly snakes the quiet reverb trails and percussion delays of dub through each song, leading us through what are ultimately extremely compositional numbers.
Underwater Dancehall is an ambitious release. Beneath any awkward attempts at vocal accessibility, Pinch’s talent and further potential as a producer is very clear.