Top 5: Influential tracks to come out of Bristol

Josiah Hartley takes an in depth, retrospective look back at five hugely influential tracks to come out of the city in the last twenty years or so

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 5th Oct 2017.
Originally published: 4th Oct 2017

Image: Roni Size (source)

While Bristol’s notorious street artist Banksy regularly makes global headlines for his fascinating artwork, if there’s one thing Bristol is just as famous for around the world, then it would be fair to say its rich musical history and vibrant music scene. Widely regarded as a global epicentre for bass-driven music and sound system culture, the city has one of the world’s best underground electronic music scenes. As far as enduring musical legacies go, it’s no question up there with the likes of London, Berlin and Detroit. 

As we get stuck into the autumn/winter clubs season, a time where many promoters are in competition to host the best parties through the most unique bookings of high profile names, including standout events at Motion in Bristol, we take a retrospective look back at five hugely influential tracks to come out of the city in the last twenty years or so. While not a definitive list by any means, here we mainly focus on the electronic domain, covering the full Bristolian spectrum.

TRICKY – 'HELL IS ROUND THE CORNER' (Fourth & Broadway, 1995) / PORTISHEAD – 'GLORY BOX' (Go! Beat, 1994)

Along with Massive Attack’s Blue Lines LP, fellow Bristolians, Tricky and Portishead are equally responsible for defining the so called “Bristol sound” of the 90s, with their respective, seminal debut albums, Maximquaye  and the Mercury Prize winning Dummy. The cuts we focus on here are: Tricky’s ‘Hell Is Round the Corner’ and Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’ each lifted from their aforementioned albums.

Taking into account the identical sound of the compositions, it would be unreasonable to mention one song without the other. By pure coincidence, both acts created and released trip hop classics using the same Isaac Hayes sample ‘Ikes Rap II’ as the backdrop to their bleak lyrical content. 

Tricky offers a deeply personal insight into his life with ‘Hell Is Round The Corner’ as he raps “Let me take you down the corridors of my life” with a semblance of nonchalance. It’s a fascinating social commentary that reveals a troubled upbringing marred by drug abuse and dealing, gang affiliation and the general lack of prospects that many working class kids growing up in a rough environment could relate to. The song also features the mesmerising vocals of Tricky’s then missus, and regular musical partner, Martina Topley-Bird.

Geoff Barrow’s choice crate-digging skills also proved to be the winning formula in providing the perfect soundbed for Beth Gibbons’ emotionally fragile, jazz-tinged vocals. On ‘Glory Box’ the frontwoman is at her most vulnerable, yet vocally assured as she desperately yearns for her partners attention and respect. As Gibbons’ laments on her hardship, the descending bassline anchoring the track, somewhat connotes the downward spiral that the relationship is going down. In addition to the instrumentation of the loop, Adrian Utley’s bluesy guitar riff adds to the beautiful misery of the song, while also working as a memorable hook.

The mainstream and critical success of both ‘Hell is Round the Corner’ and ‘Glory Box’ unearthed an obscure gem of a tune by late soul legend, Isaac Hayes to a new generation. Fast forward over twenty years on since the release of those tracks, and the sampled concoction of sullen strings, languorous bassline and shimmering organ chords, still manages to resonate with new audiences and newly inspired young artists alike.

From Maverick Sabre’s ‘Let Me Go’ through to pop starlet, Alessia Cara, most recently with ‘Here’, the gloomy string-spangled sample accommodated the backdrop to both these artist’s hit singles. And although Isaac Hayes - the original songwriter - deserves a great deal of the credit, the loop is largely synonymous with the gritty, downtempo grooves of trip hop, and the genre’s frontrunners - Tricky and Portishead.

RONI SIZE/REPRAZENT – 'BROWN PAPER BAG' (Talkin’ Loud, 1997)

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Having paid his dues in the early 90s with a flurry of killer releases on Bryan G’s V Recordings, plus his own Full Cycle imprint, Roni Size and his Reprazent cohorts (Krust, Suv and DJ Die) unleashed a bona fide drum & bass classic on the masses in 1997. Taken from New Forms, their Mercury Prize- winning debut LP, ‘Brown Paper Bag’ was a D&B record that sounded like no other at the time.  This was a cut that would go on to decimate dancefloors across the world, and forever change the way many people thought about jungle, or drum & bass as it eventually became known as. 

Taking a forward-thinking approach, the Bristol collective, fused intricately, sequenced drum programming with live instrumentation to create ‘Brown Paper Bag’. Built around the incredible live double bass riff constructed by upright bassist, Si John, the production starts off as a rolling hip hop style groove which works around the interplay between the bass and a breezy guitar lick. This infectious groove is all it takes to pique any listener’s interest, and get the neck snapping back and forth.

What follows before the colossal drop is like the calm before the storm. As the guitar and drums drop out the mix, the bass rolls on, and the sound of ominous keys creep their way in, creating a sense of tension to send pulses racing. Before the tension hits its pinnacle, and an onslaught of crisp syncopated beats, coupled with the enhanced bass riff, go absolutely haywire. You only have to hear this timeless record out in a club, or even performed live to see the bonkers reaction it evokes on the dancefloor. The nine minute plus album version is free of any vocals, whereas the full vocal single features the sharp, quotable rhymes of Dynamite MC, that sit flawlessly over the crispy polyrhythms.

Before this game-changing tune came about, other than the mainstream success that jungle icon Goldie amassed with his magnum opus ‘Timeless’, drum & bass was still very much an underground genre with a limited audience. The breakthrough success of ‘Brown Paper Bag’ and its immense breadth of appeal were unprecedented within the genre. With Size and co up in the big league of the jungle/drum & bass scene, Bristol’s reputation for being one of world’s most musically innovative cities was firmly cemented. 

MASSIVE ATTACK – 'ANGEL' (Virgin, 1998)

With such an incredible back catalogue of material spanning over 25 years, it’s never an easy task to pick just one individual song of importance from trip hop pioneers, Massive Attack. It pretty much goes without saying that their most famous song ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ is an impeccable slice of song-writing genius, whether from a dance or pop music perspective.  However, another masterpiece to their name that’s seldom celebrated in its singular form is the gorgeous, slow burner ‘Angel’.

Featuring the unmistakable vocals of reggae legend and long-serving collaborator, Horace Andy, ‘Angel’ opens up the bands ‘difficult’ third album, Mezzanine, in an explosive fashion. The intro not only sets the tone for the song, but the album as a whole, with its dark, heavy bassline, sparse half-time drums and creepy atmospherics bathed in delay and reverb. Interestingly, these hallmarks alone epitomize early dubstep, which suggests Bristol’s first wave of dubstep producers may have initially taken a few cues closer to home than one would think, besides the genres South London birthplace.

While Horace Andy’s vocals in the song represent angelic beauty, the actual music itself, in fine contrast, represents “the dark side” that he refers to in the lyrics. As the heavenly vocals soar above, the b-line in turn, grows more aggressive in distortion and volume as the track progresses. Before the increasing tension hits a climax, and a crescendo of heavy rock guitars erupt into the mix.

Much like the whole of Mezzanine, the intensity of the track reflects the overly fraught relations (at the time), between core band-members - 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom - largely due to “musical differences”.  As a result, this eventually lead to Mushroom quitting the group - who were deviating from their soul and hip hop roots to a more experimental, rock-inspired sound.

On a positive note however, out of these difficult times came ‘Angel’, which is nothing short of a masterclass in building tension within a piece of music. It’s no wonder the song has featured in many gripping scenes within films and TV Drama’s. If the Master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock was still around making movies, this track would not sound out of place in one of his modern motion pictures.

PINCH – 'QAWWALI' (Planet Mu, 2006)

Titled after the devotional music of Sufism, Pinch - The godfather of Bristol’s dubstep scene – created an awe-inspiring dubstep classic in ‘Qawwali’. Although the Bristol dubstep scene was in its early development in 2006, there was evidently a select few keeping tabs on the West Country hotbed from afar. The track eventually caught the shrewd ear of none other than Mike Paradinas aka U-Ziq, who released the single on his highly esteemed Planet Mu imprint.

Rather than utilizing an obligatory dancehall reggae sample, Pinch took a more leftfield approach with ‘Qawwali’, and instead opted for a World music influence – sampling the work of iconic Pakistani artist, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This was during a period when appropriation of this music’s nature, was relatively uncommon in dubstep. And as a result the Eastern flavour adds to the tracks mystical quality, making the record stand in a lane of its own.

The tune opens up with an interlocked rhythm of punchy kicks and snappy claps, in addition to a rolling bongo pattern that hints at the ethnic direction from the outset, while weighty proportions of sub bass surge the rhythm forward. As the piece moves along, harmonium melodies soaked in reverb and echo, pierce their way in and out of the track intermittently, which conveys a deep meditative feeling. Pinch’s masterful use of cavernous space, nods to his authentic roots reggae and dub influences, and much like the latter stripped-down Jamaican genre, allows its listener ample room to think and be taken on a spiritual high. And that experience is best enjoyed in a dark, dingy, club setting - ideally equipped with a mighty soundsystem - to fully appreciate ‘Qawwali’.  

A decade on the from the records release, and Pinch remains to be the leading bastion of his local scene, as well as being a key player within the wider bass music scene across the globe. As Tectonic label boss, not only is the producer/DJ responsible for founding Bristol’s first official dubstep label, but ‘Qawwali’ was perhaps one of the first dubstep tune’s by a Bristol dubstep producer to come out of the city. And was a major catalyst for Bristol’s booming dubstep scene that went on to produce some of the genres finest local talent, each with a distinct sound. Including pivotal figures like Peverelist, and Appleblim, through to Joker, Gemmy, Headhunter aka Addison Groove and Kahn, amongst many others.

JULIO BASHMORE – 'BATTLE FOR MIDDLE YOU' (PMR Records, 2011)

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Towards the end of the noughties, the UK underground was at a musical crossroads where producers – largely from the evolving dubstep and UK Funky scenes - began to dabble with a mix of genres that encapsulated house, techno, UK garage, UK funky, dubstep, R’n’B and footwork.  And eventually lead to the umbrella terms “bass music” or “post dubstep” being applied to the bass-heavy, hybridised creations of numerous producers.

Meanwhile, south of the river in Bristol, up and coming producer Matt Walker, otherwise known as Julio Bashmore was also finding his own sound. And laying the foundations for the “Bristol sound of house”, which catalysed the house revival in his hometown. Although Bashmore had already started to make waves - beginning with his debut EP on Claude Von Stroke’s revered Dirtybird label (in 2009), it was however his 4th EP release - Everyone Needs a Theme Tune - and the lead single from it, ‘Battle For Middle You’ that made him scorching-hot property across the buzzing UK underground.

Primarily drawing on the 4/4 elements of house and the upfront low end of dubstep, Bashmore crafted an accessible sound that somehow managed to comfortably fit in between the said styles he combined. Essentially, ‘Battle for Middle You’ is a straight up house cut propelled by a four-to-the floor drum pattern and a driving, dubby bassline. But in all its deceptive simplicity, what really makes the track a sure-fire club anthem is the marriage of its few musical elements.

The production is laced with simple, but catchy call and response hooks in the form of hazy synthchords, and whistling synthlines that flutter around to create a hypnotic, feel-good vibe. As the synths appear at the most crucial points, its creator makes eminent use of low pass filters causing them to gradually rise and enhance the tension, most notably during the tracks two epic drops, where they have the most potent effect.

While the heaven-sent vocal sample culled from 70s funk band Mass Production’s ‘People Get Up’, supplies the track its ultimate lyrical hook. A hook so compelling, that it never fails to get revellers chanting along to the vocals while in a complete state of euphoria. And with the samples lyrical content (conveniently) associated to dancing, even those sat down taking a breather have no choice but to comply with the command to “Get up and stomp your feet”. 

As most party-goers probably know, Bashmore returned the following year (2012) with the gargantuan club banger ‘Au Seve’, which went on to do even bigger things, and made the young Bristolian a household name on the international dance music stage. However, ‘Battle For Middle You’ was the initial tune that played a tremendous role in kicking off the house explosion in Bristol, the sound that continues to dominate the club scene today.

And as a result inspired a great deal of the city’s dubstep and bass music producers to shift more towards the 4/4 rhythms of house and techno. While also paving the way for a wealth of emerging house talent, including Eats Everything – who has  gone on to titanic success and acclaim since his 2011 breakthrough single ‘Entrance Song', and also rising stars like Shanti Celeste, gradually making a name for herself within the scene.

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