SBTRKT - Transitions EP

by Jack Reid

After a while in relative obscurity, releasing inspired but mostly under-appreciated beats in and around London, Aaron Jerome suddenly smashed the mainstream. With his self-titled debut album, SBTRKT, everything changed for this forward thinking beat smith. With little to no ties to the prevailing flavour of instrumentals that plied the mainstream pop rotation at the time, tracks like Wildfire and Hold On were enormous breakout successes.

Indeed, the format that SBTRKT adopted confused the wider public, many thinking that Jerome’s frequent collaborator, Sampha, was behind the beats and confusing SBTRKT for a duo. Perhaps the mask had something to do with it. For the longest time, SBTRKT appeared in public and at live shows behind an Asian-inspired ceremonial mask. Aaron has since explained:

I’d rather not talk about myself as a person, and let the music speak for itself.

After the meteoric success of his debut and its subsequent single releases, SBTRKT fell mostly off the map. Save a series of spectacular live shows that blended live and electronic elements in a style that is now much emulated, there wasn’t much to be heard from Aaron Jerome’s project. That is, until now.

In a continued trend that I’ve written about to death, SBTRKT are flouting the standard music distribution model. Transitions, the new release, is being officially released on 5th May by the Young Turks label like the debut album, but it’s been streaming online for weeks now. Well, I say Transitions is released on the 5th May. In fact, the six track piece is being split into three parts and released slowly, two-by-two, on vinyl.

Listening to Gamalena, I thought back to the note that Jerome had attached to the upcoming release. Each of these tunes are offcuts from the studio production of the forthcoming sophomore album, that were better suited to being left as instrumentals. The trap-like footwork rhythms of Gamalena certainly paint a drastic picture for what’s to come on the new release. The beat is abrasive, not particularly inspired, and distinctly not the slick lines I’m used to hearing from SBTRKT.

Moving on to Hold The Line, however, things pick up monumentally. Despite a background pad that sounds a little uninspired, the rest of the soundscape that SBTRKT builds is rich and textured. The beat is light and crushed, yet still sounds clean. The lead sounds build in cacophonous echoes that, as they rise in pitch, begin to shimmer. Yet, I still can’t shake the feeling that these Transitions are distinctly unfinished, that Hold The Line would really benefit from a touch of the human voice, however fleeting and distorted.

Kyoto is the standout track from the collection. Using similar textures to Hold The Line, it builds a far grander atmosphere with its use of a bass-y pad that seems to surround and rattle all of you at once. The lead melody manages to be skittery and rapid and yet maintains an air of coolness. The real shine of the track is revealed when the beat fully kicks in with the addition of what sounds like an analogue for a ride cymbal. This rinsed out, electronic fill-in for a key component of a break beat reminds me of what I love about SBTRKT’s music. Jerome is a fundamentally live performance-minded person, blending sensibilities that have no right to be in the electronic world, with top of the field technical execution.

Resolute is the track that perhaps hearkens back to the debut album the most, sonically. With chirpy chords and crisper drum samples, this wouldn’t sound amiss next to Heatwave, for example. In fact, I’m fairly sure I hear many of the exact sounds from SBTRKT (2011) being reused here, and that’s not a thrilling thing to discover in what is supposedly a distinct release, but oh well. Highs + Lows is certainly a break from the old however, with ecstatic and sugar sweet melodies straight off a Rustie or Hudson Mohawke record. The sound is interesting and far less irritating than that of Gamalena. This is one new direction that I really hope is cross-pollinated into the new LP.

Stifle smacks a little of game soundtrack, thin bouncing saw waves and an under-emphasised staggering hip-hop beat do little to come together into a greater whole. That’s reminiscent of the collection as a whole really; a collection of parts, many of which have their own charm and point to something better, which must just be somewhere else. It’s a shame for a record with a little handful of gems, and a stunning streaming website who’s aesthetic really points to something drastically new from the producer. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the sophomore LP to really find out what’s going on with SBTRKT.