Coldcut: Only Heaven

Coldcut are masters of samples and beats, but it's been a long time between drinks for the UK duo. How does the new EP stack up against their own massive legacy.

- Most beats fans are probably unaware of what a role UK duo Coldcut played in establishing the styles of music they love today. It’s not just that Matt Black and Jon More founded Ninja Tune, a label without which, much of the history of downtempo wouldn’t exist. Perhaps more significantly Coldcut’s sample-based music was an essential link in the chain of hip hop history: developing on US trends in the mid-’80s and in turn inspiring folks like DJ Shadow and, really, all sample-studded hip hop from that point on.

However, you don’t get anywhere by sitting on your laurels. Coldcut know this and -so many years after all of that- they’re taking their first steps into something new…well sort of. It might seem a bit tentative -Only Heaven is just a little EP- but they’re setting up a new label -Ahead Of Our Timeto put it out. Jon More was circumspect about the whole thing, calling it: “a natural progression, a bit of heritage branding, a nod to our roots and subculture.

As such, you might be expecting something sampletastic? Really though, given the amount of territory the pair have covered in their forty or more years of music making, they have a lot of potential choices. In classic Coldcut collaborative style a whole bunch of other people’s musical muscle is brought into play on the EP too. So what does that sound like?

The title track and one of the singles from Only Heaven is ample evidence. It’s a co-production with Dave Taylor who’s one half of Major Lazer and a high profile producer in his own right. If I was going to be utterly cynical I could say that his contribution must be the trap beat tacked on to what is otherwise solid, Portishead triphop. I have no idea who does the sorrowful female vocal (and it’s not Roses Gabor, who is all over the rest of the record). She’s wailing for an Angel to rescue her over a sample borrowed from an old soul cut by The Crown Heights Affair and book-ending Roots Manuva’s philosophical rap, searching for strength in adversity. The bassline comes courtesy of Thundercat, apparently, although it sounds thoroughly functional and nothing like his usual, over-the-top slapping.

The syncopated house of Creative samples a brag-rap “All the years I’ve created / You still can’t do it”, pointing an almost ungentlemanly big finger at Coldcut’s mountainous back-catalogue. The track by turns employs ghostly ambience and bass-heavy rumble. Building to big, moody peaks, it’s a pleasing dancefloor filler.

Roots raps & Roses sings the refrain on Dreamboat, which gathers its beats together out of large swathes of abstract sound. String glisses sound like whale song, lo-fi samples of congested breathing and slurping noises festoon the background of machine-like beats and stabbing synths. Put it all together and you get a disturbingly bio-industrial triphop. Roots’ rap is the mystical poetry of some interstellar pilgrim whose “Cup runneth over in the nova of the unknown” questing for enlightenment and nirvana again. It bonds with the weird beats and sounds like he’s transcending flesh, machinery and mind all at once. It’s a little inviting and kinda creepy at the same time.

The darkly hued drum’n’bass of Donald’s Wig gives you the unpleasant image of The Donald dancing, but the pounding and rather organic sounding drums play off against Roses Gabor’s sweetly breathy vocal nicely. An extended, six-and-a-half minute mix of the title track is called Quality Control, and snips out about half of Roots Manuva’s rap in favour of a new vocal from Gabor, rounding out the EP.

Only Heaven is exactly as Jon More describes it: a natural progression and a bit of heritage branding. It takes on a number of sounds from their past -although significantly more triphop than the frisky, instrumental hiphop people might be expecting- and there’s nods to today in amongst the layers and layers of production too. It goes to town on all of them with a wealth of studio wizardry. However it’s one of those records where doing less might’ve been better, now and then. Still, that cuts both ways and Only Heaven will keep on offering more if you keep on trying to nut it out. I think that’s maybe where they were going with the title: only heaven is good enough, and to that end heaven Matt & Jon have worked very hard to get us there. Hopefully, if Coldcut stick with it, they can take it a bit easier on a full-length release. There’s a mischievous, fun quality which I associate with Coldcut and that’s kinda missing here. Heaven’s pretty impressive, really, but when it comes down to it, I prefer Coldcut.

- Chris Cobcroft.

Album Details

Album Title: Only Heaven
Artist: Coldcut
Record Label: (Ahead Of Our Time / Inertia)