Album review: Kowton – Utility

Kowton’s debut full-length, the first by an individual artist on the pioneering Livity Sound label, is an unsurprisingly potent selection of pulsing techno rollers and expertly crafted DJ tools, writes Piers Barber.

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download (2)Kowton – Utility
(Livity Sound)

We’re lucky enough to be living through the latest purple patch in UK bass music, and Kowton’s Livity Sound label has certainly been doing its bit to lead the way. The Bristol-based collective has gifted us with some of the most potent and striking electronic productions of recent years, with their releases falling in the sweet-spot between rolling techno, classic dubstep and the city’s soundsystem heritage.

Utility is the first individual artist album on the label, yet not the first full-length. Instead, it follows in the footsteps of the collective effort Livity Sound, a remarkable compilation comprised of the productions of Tom Ford, aka Peverelist, Joe Cowton, aka Kowton, and Craig Stennett, aka Asusu. Its striking brand of no-nonsense sub-bass and raw percussion flew in the face of the barrage of lightweight house that seemed to have seeped its way into almost every corner of dance music at the moment of its release. The label’s instant welcome impact was recognised with Resident Advisor’s favourite label of the year gong for 2013.

The deployment of the album format for this release is a significant statement from a label which has always prided itself on quantity rather than quality. It’s also a big step for Kowton, who on top of Livity has also released excellent EPs via Hessle Audio, Keysound Recordings and Whities, Young Turks’ persistently impressive techno imprint.

The hallmark of Livity Sound releases to date has been their unrelenting clarity of vision. Kowton’s Utility is the epitome of this ambition and purpose: nine tracks of inventive and striking club music, fully soaked in Livity DNA. There is a compelling simplicity to the finished record. Devoid of any pretension or unnecessary flourishes and crammed with compelling, stripped back textures, this is a record of impact, characterised throughout by hard-hitting bass, lots of empty space, and sparse but consistently smart percussion arrangements which borrow cleverly from grime.

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The finest traits of Kowton’s music are on display throughout: on the beguiling loops of ‘Some Cats’, the rolling rhythms of ‘Scido,’ the screeching synths of ‘Bubbling Under’ and the pounding drama of ‘Comments Off.’ There’s also melodic, glitchy ambience in the shape of ‘Shots Fired’ and the particularly excellent ‘A Blueish Shadow’.

Utility offers little to tired debates about the true value of the dance music album, and the functional implications of its title do little to help the case for a genre often dismissed as repetitive. Indeed, there’s certainly little here in the way of slowly crafted atmospheres or narrative arc.

Yet that is, of course, to miss the point: “It’s fucking dance music,” Kowton protested in a recent interview, which is, admittedly, a perfectly convincing retort. This is music of simplicity, directness and compelling repetition – in fact, in a similar way to a smartly paced DJ set, the extended length of the album format allows the slow progressions of these carefully crafted tracks to really hit home.

It’s clear that the demos that eventually made their way in some form onto this album have already all been extensively road-tested on tour, and its in the clubs where these tracks will ultimately find their natural home. Their role as a snapshot of what is good about UK bass music today will ensure this collection goes down as a hard-hitting statement from an endlessly interesting label.

Follow Piers and the Music Factory on Twitter @piersbarber18 and @MusicFactoryNo1.

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