Whilst Jump-Up heralded a return to the boisterous abandon of early 90’s rave, there was another burgeoning sub-genre of D&B that painted a much bleaker picture of British life in the late 90’s. Spearheaded by Nico’s No U Turn label, ‘Techstep’ was a sharp, angular, and gloomy foreboding sound far removed from any kind of ‘jazzy’ laid back coffee-table sophistication.
As the world hurtled towards a new digital age of the internet, mobile phones, and a startling advancement in the capability of computers, a lot of Techstep seemed to reflect anxieties about technology and promoted somewhat dystopian visions of a world devoid of human warmth and emotion. Optical’s ‘To Shape The Future’ for example is a relentless grinding mechanical trudge, awash with automated bleeps and ‘dial-up’ tones that sounds something like a Skynet armament churning out tanks on a production line.
Other artists including Ed Rush, Dom & Roland, and Jonny L offered no relief from the malaise, serving up only the same cautionary tales of the future. Yet ironically it was the advances in technology and capability of programming software that gave them the opportunity to refine and excel their sound. Gone were the days of cluttered beats and messy mix-downs; breakbeat science was being phased out and replaced by rigid 2-step rhythms as engineers split hairs in the pursuit of sonic perfection.
One of the finest examples of this new wave of clinical production is exhibited on the landmark 1998 Ed Rush & Optical album, ‘Wormhole’ where every sound is obsessively precise. This was crucial as the elements are stripped down to almost minimal levels meaning that any flaws would have been left exposed. Luckily with production values this tight there was no need to fill every millisecond with noise to cover up any rough edges – one of the joys of Wormhole is the space in which each individual sound is allowed to breathe. Here the darkside themes existed not as an in-your-face temper tantrum, but more as an undercurrent of dark textures and atmospherics that ate away at the edges of each track without losing any of the power to unsettle.
Paradoxically there is a large element of funk contained within the early Virus sound, most likely influenced by Optical’s access to his parents extensive vinyl collection as he was growing up. This odd marriage of funk and darkness undoubtedly served as a template for the later ‘Neurofunk’ sound championed by the likes of Noisia and Phace.
Like Neurofunk, Techstep was bold and domineering – the kind of music that towered over you and cast a giant, intimidating shadow. It’s not a place in which to seek refuge from life’s ills, but rather one in which you can satisfy a perverse need to draw them in closer.