Sometimes writing reviews for drum and bass music is like beating your head against the wall because everything starts to sound the same after a while. I get that the point is not to change the beat or the rhythm, and I get that when you’re in your jam and your mind is free from all the bullshit that life throws the last thing you want is for the sound to drop from on liquid fire to soppy wet fur. But come on, there’s got to be something that has never been done before, something that no one has thought about. Well, someone just thought about it. Keeno’s latest is an iconoclastic masterpiece that completely changed the way I thought about drum and bass. I have really liked this years albums, but this one stands out among the top.
Traditional violins are not the first instruments I think of when I picture leather pants, blacklights, snare drums, and squelching electronic synthesizers. The gentle snares and staccato violin in the opening to “Enigma” are beautifully calibrated with keyboards to create a serene sound. Synthesizers move in like wind in a cavern to push the beat and tempo up. The snares and bass are brought into the foreground as the tempo increases, but the violins don’t let up and are not buried. Everything meshes together so well that I can picture a conductor waving his arm each time a crescendo wavers in the distance. Somewhere a leather-clad Juliard student is listening to this and thinking, “My god, what am I doing with my life?” As the track continues the violins and keyboards compete for the duet with the drums, but never once does Keeno let the sound become too cliche or watered down; everything has a place, sure, but the layers of different sounds and instruments are perfectly rounded for a full experience.
With a title like “Fading Fast” you would think that Keeno’s next song would be slow and short but you’d be wrong: this beat is fast, syncopated, and takes no prisoners. The violins are back creating tension by staying consistent with only a one or two repeated notes to match the one-two-one-two beat of the snare drums, and as the violins move up the scale in slow steps the drums begin to fade into the first drop. I can easily see this being the backdrop to a James Bond opening credits scene: there’s tension, rising action, and just as we think we are reaching a climactic point the violins drop and there’s a twist in the story as the drums come back full force with a faster beat and a squelching rip in the background. Bond is on the run, there’s a sound like a police siren, and the drums are footfalls amongst a gunfight. This is one killer beat and then the violins come back with that wicked tension builder. Oh shit, did someone just die in his arms? That sound of the siren means Bond is furious! Now the squelching is more synthetic like a ripcord across a skyline as the drums slam into his enemies. The next time we hear the violins we are given a treatment of the melody on a keyboard, higher pitched, like the soundtrack to a detective show. Who killed Bond’s lover? We are close to the end as the drums and violins lead us to the path: we know who the villain is! He’s on the run and then the violins break and it’s the echoed drum in the distance as our hero keeps running after the fleeting foe. Cliffhanger! Seriously guys, if you read this, you should really put this in a movie soundtrack. I’d see it.
In my youth I had a clock that would play a lullaby that was very melodic because it was just a slow building scale that bounced between two or three notes in succession. It’s impossible for any normal person to hear the bubbling sound of a lullaby and not know it’s bedtime. There’s a calming nature to it that exists in very few places, and that’s what the beginning of “Insomnia of an Anxious Mind” sounds like. I don’t normally talk about titles of a track, but I am a great lover of poetry, and I gotta say that is the best title for a musical piece I have heard in a long time, and it is even more so considering how aware it is of its own contradictory nature. The initial sound of the keyboard lullaby, string instruments, and the very subtle choral vocals nearly puts you to sleep. The vocals briefly break into a monk-like chant with a single repeating high note on the keyboard. You’re about to sleep when BAM! The monks start kicking the crap out of your mind with psychedelic mushrooms they’ve secretely been growing the East Garden! Squelches, fast snare drums, and a very hip-hop scratch sound make you feel like you’re in the mind of a schitzophrenic Iron Fist - yeah, you youngin’s finally get that one, don’t you? - and that’s just the beginning. The strings come back in during the drops as the bongo-like beat continues. Your mind is calm and just energized, like someone who hasn’t slept in days, and the final repeating single keyboard notes are the dinging sound you hear when you leave your keys in the engine and open your door. Did we just go sleep-clubbing with monks? Damn, dude, those are some hellacious mushrooms, bro.
Like I said previously, I’m a huge lover of poetry, though I’m not always a huge fan of rap because of it just sounds like random things shoved together to make something rhyme. Thankfully the final track of this amazingly beautiful album does feature some musical poetry by Rou Reynolds that speaks volumes and sounds great vocally against the orchestral backdrop. There’s a classic VHS-is-stuck-in-a-loop squelch sound in the beginning of this that feels like someone trying to restore time but is going about it the wrong way, and this is followed by running water. I feel like I’m in my kitchen again washing dishes. Why do I always picture myself washing dishes and not something like a rainstorm outside? Geez, I’ve got problems. But I digress! There are some light tinny drums and strings that quickly turn into a nice dance beat around a minute in as Rou Reynolds begs the question, “Did you see the flare light up the sky?” Someone is calling for reinforcements - SOS - amongst the storm. This is some great oldschool set against classic music and beat poetry, and as the chorus picks up there’s even some gospel elements. The keyboards take over a solo around two minutes and fifteen seconds to give a great melancholy melody. “And it’s a violent symphony - and if there’s a God he’s got it out for me.” We can all attest to feeling that way some time in our life, but put in that way in a track that uses symphonic sound to create its voice is not something that we can just grasp and claim as our own. This one is about pain and heartbreak, swimming in the rain, and making it to the shoreline in time to see yourself alone in your reflection. One of my favorite pieces on this album for sure.
From a sad Juliard student in leather pants to shroom-popping monks trying to stay awake during the rave seasons, Keeno has done it again and in a way that I don’t think can be toppled any time soon. Break out those skin-tight pleasure pants and emotionally discharged boyfriends and listen to some Keeno and chill, because this one is surely going to be in a classical music history college course in your near future. Assuming you go to college. Hell, I don’t know your life! I just know this is some damn fine music.
Keneo’s Music For Orchestra: Drums & Bass is available April 7. 2017 from Hospital Records.