It’s been some time since Mala’s “In Cuba” was released. The album’s mix of Afro-Cuban music and Croydon bass weight was a revelation for some and for other’s it stunk of “world music” with a simple reggae bassline. However, the important thing is that something like “In Cuba” hadn’t been done before at least within dubstep at the juncture in the genre’s history. “In Cuba” came out in 2012 during the halcyon days of the “dungeon sound”. Youngsta’s RinseFM show was the place to lock in and discover the cream of the crop. DnB artists like Icicle and Proxima began releasing tunes at 140bpm and labels like Black Box first put LAS to wax, Vivek dropped Kismet on Deep Medi, and Bandulu001 dropped in August of that year if you remember correctly. Hell even Osiris hadn’t gone full techno yet. “In Cuba” broke open the doors in a way. It was radically different from what was swirling around it. The album opened up potential new avenues for exploration, new aesthetic data that could be replicated. And four years on, LAS is at the top of the mountain, Vivek’s SYSTEM night and label are this generation’s DMZ and more American dubstep artists and labels are gaining momentum. Four years on, again Mala returns with the Peruvian inspired “Mirrors”.
Now ideologically, both “In Cuba” and “Mirrors” mine the same vein. Both refract indigenous music through dubstep’s prism of bass weight. However, in terms of what the final product is, that’s where the comparison between the two albums SHOULD end, but naturally because both play in the same conceptual sandbox, stylistic comparisons between the two albums will abound, and spoiler alert they will abound here. The circumstances around how Mirrors as a project came about, in my opinion, define how “Mirrors” ended up sounding. Mala himself said in the recent RMBA interview that “the only thing I really knew about Peru was, obviously, the Incas, Machu Picchu, and unfortunately, as bad as it sounds, on Croydon High Street you might get the odd native Peruvian playing the pan flutes”. And naturally when news of the album went public, memes of Mala’s face on the Peruvian flute band from the South Park episode “Pandemic” floated around. Some people dismissively called the album “Mala in Peru”. But the circumstances of how the album came into being are more nuanced and perhaps a bit more touching, and I believe its for those reasons that the album sounds radically different (outside of the instrumental choices) than “In Cuba”.
The album as a whole feels more introspective, quieter. More pensive and carefully studying the surroundings as opposed to In Cuba’s joyous noise. Mala goes into some depth within his RMBA article as reason why Peru became a new palate to draw inspiration from seems to point to a sense of homesickness and family – “When me and my partner met many years ago, she always spoke about Peru. A lot of our close friends are Peruvian. She herself had been to Peru a number of times. She told me about her experience and her adventures there. We hadn’t been. We have two children and a lot of her friends had moved back to Peru; she used to live with some Peruvian guys and girls, a couple actually. They moved back to Peru”. Intimate field recordings like Mala’s son uttering “thunder coming” in “Sound of the River” and the ambient modulations of Cusco’s streets weave their way into “Cusco Street Scene”. Entire sections of songs feel as if you and the musician are sitting in the same room swapping stories and enjoying the company of each other. “The Calling” and “Take Flight” feature snatches of guitar before being ripped apart by dubspace. Perhaps the most strident example being, “Zapateo” which might as be just be a Colectivo Palenke song with Mala guesting on the bass guitar.
Even the artwork itself reflects a homesickness for someplace you’ve never been to. With a looming, lavender sky hanging over a white sand dune, the artwork itself is like a picture taken from the ISS, the earth becomes abstract and alien, a place both familiar yet foreign. This sense becomes abundantly clear on the torch song (and my personal highlight of the album) “Cunumicita” which features the haunting and spectral voice of Danitse. The aforementioned song “Sound of the River” also is graced by singer Sylvia Falcón. Both possess a “Girl from Ipanema” wistfulness the highlights the impressionistic “Lost in Translation” feeling one would possess being immersed in totally distinct culture than one’s own.
The songs in “Mirrors” pitter-patter rather explode. Due in part to the inclusion of instruments like the quijada, which is the jaw of a dead pack animal like a cow or donkey, the cajita: a collection box used at churches which is played with a stick and the most notable – the cajon. But the rather tinny percussion doesn’t stop Mala from engaging in some good old fashioned speaker worship. The DMZ vibe runs heady and thick on “Looney” which stomps like a steppa should, bearing its teeth through trap horn flares. Or the haunting opener Kotos, armed with that crucial offset techno influenced sub pattern. The dubbed out pan flutes washing over everything with their glassy timbres ala Kode9 early stuff. Even the aforementioned “Cusco Street Scene” sounds like the Peruvian cousin of “Lean Forward” with trading piano stabs for blaring pan pipes.
For all my praise, the moments of pure dance floor abandon are few and far between. The only outlier being “Elements” which book ends the album with funky Afro-beat drum ecstasy. Long stretches of the album acting more as impressionistic snapshots of a country not well understood filtered through the halogen lamps of Croydon. “Mirrors” by all means is a welcome addition to the dubstep gene pool, but sonically the album finds itself the odd man out in a sense. With no “dungeon sound” to act as a foil against, “Mirrors” has a harder time finding its footing against what is going on sonically within the scene. Gantz has made weirder rhythms since MIC. Off-kilter dynamics, weird textures, non-European rhythmic and melodic pivots aren’t so shocking now. Back in 2012, at the time back when dungeon was king labels like Innamind / Blacklist were maybe only 3 releases deep. Put bluntly, Mirrors isn’t radical enough in it’s incorporation of Peruvian musical aesthetic data, but that doesn’t mean Mirrors isn’t a great dubstep album.