As the speed with which we consume music continues to increase, it has become depressingly rare for artists or labels to find any kind of permanence or niche within the constantly evolving and transient context of musical trends. Music is devoured and spat out without the time for it even to be digested properly. The market is constantly at saturation point, swamped by a seemingly never-ending influx of new labels struggling to get their voice heard.
Considering this current state of affairs, it is testament to the integrity and sheer quality of the Punch Drunk imprint's output that it is now celebrating its landmark twentieth release.
Since its inception in 2006, the Punch Drunk label has been responsible for some of the most forward-thinking and brilliantly idiosyncratic bass music to be released. With the kind of flawless discography of which other labels can only dream, over its relatively short tenure it has become a bastion of the ever-mutating and diversifying dubstep scene.
To mark the occasion, the label is releasing a strictly limited 12" from local experimental producer Ekoplekz, each housed in an individually painted sleeve. The most challenging and avant-garde of the Punch Drunk releases to date, the single is less an indication of the label's direction as it is an apt and timely statement about its liberal and innovative attitude towards music.
"I wanted to do something special for the twentieth release", explains label head Tom Ford, AKA Peverelist, "and I don't think there is anything else out there that sounds like Ekoplekz. It doesn't fit into any boxes, which is very appealing to me. It is beatless, but it's not wishy washy ambient or chill-out by any means. Bristol has always seemed to produce this dark dub music and Ekoplekz is very raw, dark and deeply textured dub soundscapes inspired by radiophonic soundtracks and post-punk electronic experimenters. The more you listen, the more it reveals itself. You have to hear it."
While this release may be quite far removed from the rest of the Punch Drunk discography, it perfectly embodies the principles that underlie the label's output: experimentalism, originality and bass. Furthermore, it is fitting that this landmark release exists within the musical traditions of the city from which it emanates, following in Bristol's dub lineage – albeit in a mutated form – as this is, and always has been, Ford's intention with the label.
Punch Drunk is imbued with the forward-thinking and open-minded attitude that defines Bristol's bass music culture and it is this which is at the very heart of the label. As such, this affinity with the label's locale is not something that Peverelist would ever consider diluting:
"I'd start a new label rather than change the idea, the label would lose its identity and would be just another dubstep label. I had an absolutely clear mission statement [for Punch Drunk], to represent Bristol artists operating in the soundsystem / bass music field to the wider world."
By defining the label by its geographical remit rather than any distinct sonic touchstones, Ford has afforded himself the freedom to simply push good music, regardless of musical constrictions, drawing upon the great pool of talent that resides in Bristol.
Releases from a broad array of emerging and established talent that includes Forsaken, Gemmy, Guido, Hyetal and Pinch, have touched upon disparate and unique influences all drawn together by their bass-heavy foundations. The Punch Drunk catalogue flickers with the ghosts of formative years listening to grime, hip hop, house, techno and jungle, shattered and reconstructed to create something completely new.
Eschewing the impulse to follow trends, the label has trod its own path from the offset, letting each release occupy its own unique space. Even a quick glance over their back catalogue will substantiate this. From the redefined junglist rhythms of RSD's seminal Pretty Bright Light to Peverelist's own futuristic dub vision 'Roll With The Punches', Ford has let each release speak for itself rather than subjugate them to any misplaced sense of sonic conformity, each producer providing their own musical narrative. This has allowed the label to draw its identity from its forward-thinking vision rather than any tangible and potentially restrictive musical qualities.
As a result, the label's back catalogue still sounds as fresh now as it did when it was first released. Whether it is the fractured bass pressure of Pinch's Dr Carlson, Gemmy's trembling grime instrumental Bk 2 The Future or Guido's charged RnB jam Mad Sax, Ford has managed to stay true to the fundamental principles of the label while letting the music it puts out dictate its own direction.
With Punch Drunk reaching this landmark, and considering its inextricable links to the city in which it was birthed, it seems apt that the Worth The Weight: Bristol Dubstep Classics compilation has also just been released on the label.
"Sometimes you need to stop and take stock of where things have come from and where they are now, to forge a vision of the future", Ford explains. "We've come a long way and I felt the need to tie things together in an all-inclusive document."
However, with such a broad variety of talent and huge discography to sift through, dissecting and constructing a coherent and inclusive retrospective of Bristol bass music is no easy task:
"I wanted to get as much on there as possible, the full spectrum of sounds, seen from the angle of the Bristol dances, specifically Dubloaded, that are the life of the scene."
Ford's unique insight into the scene, viewed from its centre, has shaped the compilation, and the result is an impressively diverse and inclusive homage to the legacy of dubstep's second city and its role in the emergence and evolution of the genre. Not limiting itself to any one defined sound – which is often the downfall of appraisals of Bristol's music culture – it explores just about every permutation of the 140 bpm template imaginable.
As for what is next for the label, it is anyone's guess. Even Peverelist himself is not sure just yet:
"I haven't even thought about next year yet. One thing at a time."
Here's to another twenty release from one of the most exciting and forward-thinking labels around.
Words: Sam Collenette
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