There is a tendency to view UK bass music and its ever burgeoning set of mysterious sub genres as a restless, constantly shifting movement pushing at the boundaries of sonic creativity. More recently, however, a number of the releases emerging from this scene (particularly those on the Hyperdub label) have arrived bathed in the hazy glow of nostalgia, emphasising that this music has its own chain of heritage and history in much the same way as any other genre.
Perhaps more refracting than reflecting memories of classic house and R&B, Sara Abdel-Hamid’s second full length album as Ikonika comes as something of a surprise. There are influences here that must surely pre-date the birth of much of this music’s intended audience – not least the techno of Derrick May or the still memorable hit releases that emerged from The House Sound Of Chicago (among them Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley and Farley Jackmaster Funk). Although there are some moments which hint back at her earlier detached and clinical approach to production and composition, much of Aerotropolis is much warmer, with an immediately winning energy and positivity.
Aerotropolis shares a sense of being haunted by ghosts from yesteryear with Cooly G’s excellent Playin’ Me album from last year. Yet, also like that album, it has a distinctive and individual style and approach that lends it a feeling of authority and conviction. Ikonika has clearly lived within the cracks and lines in the classic recordings that have inspired her, and has found pathways that fashion them for her own purposes. Aerotropolis is, at least in part, playful and affectionate homage – but there is also the impression that these constructions are being adapted in some way to suit the rapid pace, demands and exuberance of modern London life. This very much feels like a contemporary city soundtrack, in spite of its constant glances to the past.
Much of this music feels sleek and streamlined, focusing in on key hooks and simple, direct, often uplifting ideas. This approach comes across most clearly on Beach Mode (Keep It Simple), the album’s key single, bringing in promising vocalist and fellow Hyperdub signing Jessy Lanza for Ikonika’s debut vocal track. The combination works well, with Lanza’s understated but haunting vocal melody subtly weaved within the synth-led accompaniment. It’s a thrilling, irresistible concoction and surely one of the tracks of the year.
The hooks are not just reserved for the new journeys into vocal pieces, however. Ikonika’s grasp of memorable synth parts and insistent, recurring figures have been taken to new levels here. There’s the punchy, staccato chords of Mr Cake and the energetic repetition generating forward motion in Lights Are Forever. Throughout the album, single synth lines interact gleefully with the bass and percussion parts.
It’s not all warmth, however. Even Beach Mode’s central lyric calls for emotion to be removed from interactions, whilst the crisp, competitive zing of Backhand Winners has something calculated and precise about it. Whilst Mega Church could be a moment of inspiration and worship, it could also be a warning of something darker lurking just around the next corner. The Aerotropolis might promise wealth and opportunity for some, but there’s also a creeping sense of claustrophobia and limitation at work that tempers some of the more celebratory material. It’s a poised, carefully executed balance that captures Ikonika in an intriguing period of transition.