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Thankfully, the past few years have brought the exhilarating and acerbic production work of Adrian Sherwood back into earshot. In the midst of early ’80s London, he helped a slew of punks—the Fall, Judy Nylon, and Maximum Joy—find their inner dub sound, and he gave rastas like Bim Sherman and Prince Far I a heavily psychedelic bass tone that made them stand apart from their dreadlocked brethren. A tireless work ethic and decades of production work make it near impossible to keep a handle on the man, but a spate of reissues in the past few years, especially Sherwood at the Controls, show just how his sound anticipated the wooly electronic experimentation that now runs through the likes of Arca, the Fade to Mind crew and dubstep itself.
So having Sherwood team with dubstep pioneer Rob Ellis, aka Pinch, was surely inspired. But too often on their 2015 debut, Late Night Endless, felt cluttered and claustrophobic. And when they did take their foot off the gas, they wound up wallowing in a downtempo rut. The tempos remain quickened on their follow-up Man Vs. Sofa, but the two let the tracks breathe a bit more and there’s a sense of refinement throughout. A jittery thump opens “Roll Call,” and while there’s all manner of machine-gun handclaps, echoing hi-hats and arroyos of bass, there’s also flecks of Blaxploitation guitar and cinematic strings. It might read like a laundry list of elements, but Pinch and Sherwood move deftly between it all.
“Itchy Face” bears quick electro bass pulses and snare rolls. So when they introduce a graceful piano line and just let it luxuriate, it’s like a sonic speedball. The two are so nimble and compatible now that they easily swing into echo chambers and white noise while keeping the speed up. That piano crosses over to the dubstep/classic dub stylings of “Midnight Mindset,” though it’s not the same easy blend they displayed earlier. And the title track has piano and drums flicker in and out of darkness, but it doesn’t move so much as get swallowed up by static. And when the piano rises up again on the next track, the novelty of it in their mix wears thin.
The best surprise comes when they bring Lee “Scratch” Perry in for a guest vocal turn on “Lies.” Despite decades of dub pedigree, Sherwood and Pinch forego it to instead put a tricky 2-step under him, a welcome shift in strategy. A furious lyric adds menace to the industrial haze of “Gun Law,” showing the duo moving into noisier terrain that brings to mind Sherwood’s gnarled mid-’80s output.
Things get baffling when the duo throw in a cover of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s evocative ’80s classic, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.” The first time through, they pay their respects to Sakamoto’s sterling piano melody, one of the loveliest soundtrack themes of the era. But after establishing the motif, Sherwood and Pinch don’t seem to know quite where to take it. A downtempo beat gets thrown underneath it, before the two grind the track to a complete halt and instead add squalls of digital glitch and some electric guitar noodling. It then goes up into the stratosphere for a moment before they bring it back down with a needlessly busy IDM drum line. Respectable as it is for both men to avoid falling back into their bag of dub tricks, a few of Man Vs. Sofa’s attempts to expand their reach fall just a bit short.Share