He had us all from the moment we saw the artwork, didn’t he? That hypnotic garden of darklight imagery (seeded and watered through close collaboration with the peerless Concrete Junglists) seemed like a thrilling window on not just DRS’s world, but ours: colour and riches and texture and twisted future-tech possibilities, all weighted and shaded by human doubt. Growth despite demons. A balance of forces.
This, the third solo album from d’n’b’s MVP is DRS with the aperture open. The light flooding in. The scales tipped the right way. That infamous fire, for now, soothed. A cast of collaborators including Dogger, Vangeliez, Mindstate, Redeyes and FD – shoes filled on previous LPs by the likes of D Bridge, Dub Phizix, Addison Groove, Die – consciously weighted towards something hopeful, soulful, beautiful.
How we needed that.
Keeping us hungry as ever, another voice takes centre stage first, as Manc jewel HMD’s honey-sweet tones swirl over album opener and runaway single Cinnamon Roses: a sunlit liquid meditation of molten keys and orchestral haze that frames all that follows. We’re fully two minutes in before we hear the great man. And, as ever, it’s like church:
Take crash landings as a lesson /
If you’re falling short then count your blessings /
It’s impossible to read them when you’re stressing.
We’ve all been here countless times now, drifting away on a conscious one with DRS as our voice of reason. And these hands get safer and wiser all the time. “I mostly try and have the answers every time that they call” – just one more pebble from DRS’s vast beach gleaming up as the track simmers. It’s that “mostly” and “try” that sum up why we trust this voice. This 170 chronicler who speaks of our failures but our root-deep goodness at the same time.
This album is the sound of what I do best
Even when the vibe nudges leftfield, as on Think Tonk’s space-age percussive stepper Light In My Memories, the warmth still streams through, the edges softened. Glitching robo-soul hummer Running Back with Need For Mirrors is drenched in gospel colour before it wonks out – another frighteningly well-executed dovetailing between DRS’s singing and spitting – and there’s a thrilling sense that our battle-hardened sage might just have found his most productive mode of all: conscious, calm optimist.
“Yeah a lot of time ‘we’ as an artist try to guess what the listener wants or needs from us in an album or project,” Del tells Kmag. “When really they just want ‘you’ and what ‘you do best’. So this album is the sound of what I do best.” He is, as he says, “in the best mind frame I’ve been in for years.”
Long may it continue. On preposterously superior liquid ballad Us, with Vangeliez, we’re at the apex of this growth mindset. Top down. System up. Coast-bound. Breezing. DRS’s often overlooked soulful tones have never sounded more accomplished, his melodious topline dancing in step with his own bassier harmony, as those endless keys flicker and the warm subs roll.
And it’s easy to forget, as we’re borne away on the sheer low-riding brilliance of Like Uh, another standout with Vangeliez, that there’s not really anyone making music like this, where astute songcraft meets 170 vocal pressure: part hyper-localised hip hop postcard, part universal liquid-funk voyage, part elegant club strut, part crafted blues composition.
On the release of 2015’s collab carousel Mid-Mic Crisis, Mixmag wrote that “DRS everyone’s favourite gravelly dance host is now indivisible from DRS top-echelon production curator.” More than five years on, the sheer quality and breadth of the body of work delivered since makes it funny to think there was a time when DRS stood taller in our minds as the former rather than the latter.
As comfortable with smooth funk as rasping tech and naughty wobble, onstage and in-ear, is there any artist in drum ‘n’ bass that has gifted ravers such a range of modes? Who among us has not stood, wavy and elated in some airless bunker, as DRS conducts the dance like a five-star general: iron-lunged, barrel-chested, often abrasive as he jackhammers the set with ragged energy. And yet it is that same voice that has opened our eyes, like the moment UK heads had their vision shifted by Jehst all those years back, to the possibilities of quiet artistry.
You just have to listen properly
It seems light years since the days when talented d’n’b MCs would talk of their back-burner hip hop project – as if that were the place reserved for proper lyricism and soul. In DRS, drum ‘n’ bass has found its essential modern artist: DIY to the core, releasing on his own Space Cadet label and shooting his Tarnish Vision creations; as adept at penning home-listening wonders as rowdy rave trademarks; and elevating lyrics, songwriting and the art of the long-player to the same level as smashing the dance.
And the secret? Just to listen. “I’m always writing in my head when I hear a phrase, a sound, a feeling, it just pours,” he tells Kmag. “I jot lines down in my phone. I record phrases into my voice notes. But every track I’ve released was written to that beat specifically and recorded exactly when it was written. Life is constantly giving you lyrics. You just have to listen properly.”
What tips the scales away from madness in an uncertain world? Hope. Mindset. Perspective. And for sharing his with us so boldly all these years – and finally finding a balance we might all aspire to – we should salute a unique scene presence.
As this writer wrote in 2015, there’s no one like him. Sandpaper in his throat, wisdom in his eyes and more than a little pain in his heart. It’s the DRS.