When poker players are on tilt it’s generally not a good thing. Their decisions are clouded by emotion; they make reckless plays, misjudge their luck, and tend, eventually, to spiral out. But it can be thrilling, in the most visceral, addictive way imaginable. There aren’t many analogues between casinos and nightclubs (not the good ones, anyway), but that sense of effervescent tension would be one. It’s also a decent frame through which to appreciate Beneath’s brand of dance music: Typified by the kind of moody, tense energy that’s best broken by either tears or laughter.
Beneath, real name Ben Walker, has quietly wielded pretty enormous influence on UK club music over the past 10 years or so. In the early 2010s he offered a darker, denser take on something resembling UK funky, cutting a singular groove with his own No Symbols white-label imprint. The label later morphed into a series of DIY nights in South London. (Walker moved to the capital from his hometown of Stoke-on-Trent, via Sheffield, both former industrial towns in the north of England.) These were gatherings infused with the energy and creative optimism of the city’s early dubstep parties, and later birthed a run of cassette releases, sharing set recordings from the nights. But amid all this, the previously steady clip of Beneath’s own musical output became sparser. On Tilt is his first solo release since a two-track 12" for Blackest Ever Black offshoot A14 back in 2018. Its arrival is timely, not only rousing Hemlock Recordings—the post-dubstep label that unleashed the likes of James Blake and Joy Orbison in the late noughties—from a four-year slumber, but landing after a year in which the UK’s shuttered clubs have been sanitized by nostalgic rose-tints and the language of parliamentary petitions. On Tilt’s dense array of basement club tracks provides a reminder that, sometimes, joy is found in the grit of things, and in the nervy, clammy-handed moments that jostle with unblemished euphoric bursts.
“Bone Hum,” with its side-winding flute-synth melody over staccato drums, shows off Beneath’s knack for the sort of melody that can just as easily soundtrack the early hours of the club as the scenes six hours later when sweat is pouring down the walls. He dips a toe into acid waters on “Lesser Circulation” to enchanting effect, drawing a direct line between the bright-eyed days of UK hardcore and his own inkier iterations on drum-heavy dance music. On “Shambling,” he pitches down a double reed clarinet (a zamr or mijwiz, most commonly found in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East) and weaves it between bouncy kick drums and reverberating rim shots. It’s a sound that slots neatly into the emergent strains being pushed by the London-based but globally-facing Nervous Horizon label and its founders Wallwork and TSVI—but longtime dubstep fans will undoubtedly hear shades of old Cyrus and Digital Mystikz records in there too.
Beneath manages to toe the delicate line between an obsessive reverence for what’s been and a concerted dedication to what might come next. But there’s never the risk of a chinstroke. Case in point: “Dark Waters” pays homage to the meditative expanses of early dubstep music, revelling in all the reverb-laden detail—but never so much that, in the right circumstances, ravers wouldn’t happily lose their shit to it. Because where’s the fun if you’re not slipping out of control from time to time?
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