Remains one of the most groundbreaking and special efforts in the genre.
In the late ‘90s, drum ‘n’ bass was, much as it is now, still an underground scene. There were elements of it beginning to surface in the most savvy and daring artists, the most notable being Madonna’s use of a drum ‘n’ bass rhythm in her 1998 single “Frozen” to lend it a dark, dreary and fractured atmosphere. Nine Inch Nails used it the same way to a less sophisticated extent in many tracks including 1997’s “The Perfect Drug.” These mainstream manifestations of the sound had, however, very deep roots in both Europe and Scandinavia, where years earlier similar experiments were revealing some incredibly game-changing results. One of the most stand-out records from this era never really broke in North America despite being released on Warner Bros. Records, but remains one of the most groundbreaking and special efforts in the genre: the self-titled debut by Stockholm, Sweden’s Baxter.
Not to be confused with the at least 6 other bands known as Baxter, we’re speaking here about a trio of Swedish electronic music musicians made up of Ricky Tillblad, Carl Herlofsson and Nina Ramsby (now singer-songwriter Nino Ramsby). The three met while Nina was seeking graphic arts work to help propel her musical interests and took a job with Ricky, who had already made a name for himself in the dub and reggae genre. As so often happens in the music industry, similar interests bred creative magic. Herlofsson was brought in for his programming and instrumentation skills, and in a few months the three began writing songs together. They produced a 5 track EP which would be the seed that would eventually become their debut self-titled CD in 1998.
Scandinavian electronic music often feels comparatively stark and minimal —a tradition that continues to this day. It’s a refreshing antidote to North American and British in-your-face and bombastic sounds. Our approach tended to be full of soulful vocal and house influences. The soul of drum ‘n’ bass seemed steeped in techno and electro-pop roots. Rather than lavish synths, chopped reggae and complicated baselines, the music woven together by Tillblad and Herlofsson was as deep and rich as it was simplistic in the range of its palette. From beginning to end, Baxter feels like reverberating echoes of polyrhythms bouncing around your headphones. The atmosphere is a dark room with distant snares and bass notes. In terms of likeness, it heralds what would eventually become a legendary track in the genre, Goldie’s Timeless for Metalheadz records. Like Baxter’s record, “Timeless” and its sister tracks “Inner City Life,” “Pressure” and “Jah” comprise a 20 minute epic drum ‘n’ bass journey full of rattling drum patterns and atmospheres with haunting vocals laid over top. What made Baxter’s record an even better exercise of this same aesthetic was the focus put on actual songwriting. Unlike simple vocal samples and hooks which tended to be shallow and relatively meaningless, Baxter were constructing pop songs laid over the best drum ‘n’ bass patterns of the day.
“Television” opens the record by setting the tone with a full minute of just musical tones. Nina’s melancholy vocals cut in telling the story of someone who seemingly spent too much time watching television and decided to blow it up and spend some time outside instead. The descending horn notes off in the distance add a forlorn nature to the whole thing. “Fading” fits in perfectly with the emerging trend toward trip-hop at the time. The track would not be out of place beside anything by the Sneaker Pimps or Portishead but for the remarkable and groundbreaking use of drum ‘n’ bass. The high speed and aggressive rattle and tap of what’s happening alongside simple guitar notes almost seem in opposition to the quiet nature of it. This is really driven home in the song’s closing moments, bringing in a guitar-like sample which lends a powerful aggro pounce to the whole thing. Few bands successfully pulled off this melding of mellow and hardcore electronica with such a deft hand.
“Love Again” and “Possible” add an acid-jazz element to the proceedings. The use of mellow horns and a more down-tempo drum pattern along with Nina’s gentle laments continue to carry the record through to its conclusion on “Oh My Love.” This final track is the least appealing and most simplistic on the record and breaks from the established patterns of fast drums and easy jazz. It’s a harbinger of what might come on later records, as the trio would eventually try more to release more radio pop-friendly material which came off rather pedestrian by comparison.
Baxter is a difficult record to find because the name is so generic, and there are several bands that use it. But if you can find it, with a photograph of Nina standing in the rain on the cover, you’d do well to pick it up. It’s a case study in a style that would go on to become the basis for other groundbreaking, experimental crossover albums like Rawtekk’s Here’s to Them. It’s hard to say whether or not Baxter had any direct influence on artists which would attempt to mimic the idea of drum ‘n’ bass mixed with pop music. But over two decades later, while others have long since been discarded, this album still stands the test of time on the strength of the band’s incredible songwriting and dark, haunting production.