Rating: 3.25/5Photek, the man who strung together a handful of great drum & bass releases in the mid-to-late ‘90s, seems ready-made to produce a stellar collection of tracks as part of !K7’s ongoing DJ-Kicks series. His best recordings have reveled in endlessly complex arrangements, showing off his OCD-level attention to detail and giving him a unique voice in the jungle/drum & bass scene. Those looking for a return to his mid-‘90s self won’t find much to latch onto here though. Instead, Photek plunders the depths of minimal techno and ambient dub to create a seedy, atmospheric head-trip of a mix.
Luckily, for those who have adapted to Photek’s shifting identity, there’s a generous offering of his own original productions here that, while not quite measuring up to the material of his early days, are successful explorations of dubstep and deep house. An underbelly of crisp, snapping drums anchors opener “Azymuth,” while ethereal keys and tones swirl around the mid-section of the arrangement. “Fountainhead” leans slightly more towards the minimal – with sparse processed kick and snare drum – with occasional synth lines adding some welcome weight to the airy track. “No Agenda” may be his best cut though, its multiple jittery synth leads providing necessary momentum in a track that barely reaches the one-minute mark and slowly deteriorates over that length. “M25FM” is a sinister dance floor cut, pulsing with equal parts vibrancy and dread and adding in what sounds vaguely like processed horns for added effect. These may not be the layered, intricate arrangements of Photek’s best work, but there’s something darkly beautiful at the heart of his productions here.
Though this particular DJ-Kicks compilation can occasionally grow tiresome as the focused aesthetic wears thin over time, Photek surrounds his own productions with enough stellar cuts to keep the listener intrigued. Kromestar’s “In 2 Minds” is a particularly great addition, its minimalistic beat bearing a lot of similarities to the best work from the Neptunes. DLX’s “Modern Man” injects some much-needed zest into the downtempo mix, its bouncy piano line, cyclical, deteriorating synth and breathy vocals lifting us out of the darker corners of dub that Photek navigates his way through. For a DJ-Kicks mix to work, it generally needs to follow some sort of theme, some form of organization and categorization. Though there are certainly times when Photek gets lost in the haze of the post-club comedown, delivering underwhelming cuts near the album’s close, he mostly manages to keep us focused on the structured ebb and flow of his selections. He watchfully selects his transitions, fades and contrasting tones, creating a linear narrative through similar rhythm, timbre and flow. This is never more successful than on the one-two punch of Daze Maxim’s “Tomorrow Universe” and Sepalcure’s “Taking You Back.” The former takes its steady house beat and adds glitchy synth pads and vocals before gliding into the a capella beginning of the latter, which blends handclaps with the sound of heavy rainfall, a wonderful moment of transition that finds its R&B soul in the meshing of tones.
Still, there’s something slight about this mix. Despite its solid collection of artists and Photek originals, the overall creative vision is a weary one. The formula of deep, heavy bass, arpeggio synths and heady, atmospheric pads never elevates into moments of true tension and release – a little catharsis would go a long way here. Instead, we’re left to wallow in the starkness of each arrangement. It’s a seclusion that mostly works when received through headphones, but fails to translate into a bigger, more unpredictable sound.