Live drum & bass?

The weekend just gone saw the return of a decent music festival to the Ashton Court site in Bristol. Brisfest wasn’t quite like festival from the old days – you had to pay to get in for a start – but the line-up was well thought out and catered for exactly the sort of people who used to go to the old festival, but who weren’t always catered for musically. There was a metal tent, break-core DJs in one of the bars, a dome full of techno, a BBC introducing stage, a decent dance stage and a solid, eclectic line-up on the main stage with artists as diverse as Sheelanagig, Hawkwind and De La Soul. We had a sunny Saturday and a rainy Sunday, which was pretty good considering the summer we’ve had up to now.

However, there was a problem.

It being a Bristol festival, there was at least one band playing whose bio in the programme described them as “An incendiary blend of live drum and bass, dub, dubstep, bashment, breakbeat and world music with no backing tracks”. Now, I have no problem with dub, bashment, world music, or even breakbeat, and I don’t care much what you do as far as dubstep goes, but live drum & bass? This is a problem, and let me explain why…

Drum & bass – like techno, house and trance – is an electronic genre. It’s all about repetition, about the rhythm of the track, about loops and unchanging tempos and about creating a constant flow of music. It is strictly defined as bass-led, breakbeat music at 160-180bpm and I think it’s the breakbeat bit that causes the problems.

No-one makes ‘live’ techno, or ‘live’ trance, but bands assume that if they just play their drums at a drum & bass tempo and turn the bass up a bit, they’ve created drum and bass. They haven’t. All they’ve done is played a bit faster and turned the bass up a bit. The resulting music doesn’t have the hypnotic quality, the groove, the… electronicness (for want of a better word) which sets drum & bass apart.

If you listen to a proper drum and bass tune – let’s take for example Krust’s Soul in Motion – you can hear that although it shifts and evolves as the tune goes on, it is still recognisably a piece of electronic music. The metronomic, un-changing tempo is what makes it so perfect and allows DJs to work with it in the mix.

Now, it is possible to do drum & bass live, but only using computers, samplers, sequencers, drum machines and the like. As soon as you have live musicians, playing actual instruments and especially drums, at 160-180bpm, it ceases to be drum and bass and simply becomes fast soul, or fast funk, or fast something else.

There have been some valiant efforts (London Elektricity live, Reprazent) and some shitty ones (Blackout), but nobody gets it right because it simply isn’t possible. I’m sure the music is fun and lovely if you like that sort of thing, and the inherent energy of music at around that tempo is undeniable. Just don’t call it drum & bass, it can only lead to disappointment.

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