SBTRKT : The Rat Road
In the UK, SBTRKT’s self-titled 2011 debut is something of a cult classic. For those of us who came of age on the early 2010s rave scene, tracks like “Pharaohs” and “Wildfire” were a ubiquitous soundtrack of the era. SBTRKT, along with other 2011 albums from the likes of Jamie XX and James Blake, ushered in post-dubstep (also termed future bass or UK bass)—a malleable sound that harnessed British dubstep’s dark low end and blended it with garage, R&B and those genres’ pop sensibilities.
Of all the major releases from this era, SBTRKT holds up the best. Its tight 11 tracks are wall-to-wall bangers, fusing subtle, elegant rhythms with note-perfect guest vocals from the likes of Sampha and Jessie Ware. SBTRKT, real name Alan Jerome, followed his debut with 2014’s Wonder Where We Land, which failed to recapture the same magic. That effort felt bloated, oscillating and was too eager to reject what made SBTRKT’s sharp debut so compelling.
Seven years after 2016’s odd mini-album Save Yourself comes The Rat Road. If Wonder Where We Land felt swollen and indulgent, The Rat Road is the richest dish imaginable, followed up with a dose of intoxicants. These 22 tracks veer down countless electronic avenues—techno, R&B, footwork, synth pop, drum and bass. Within individual tracks, Jerome frankensteins these disparate parts together, though the album as a whole never settles on a cohesive production style. Whereas his barnstorming debut modulated its shifts in tone with expert precision, The Rat Road flails between them with heady abandon.
None of which is to say that there aren’t compelling tracks on this hefty album. Sampha’s fragile croon returns for the unpredictable “LFO,” the Leilah-featuring “Drift” is spacious and seductive and “Days Go By” (featuring Toro Y Moi) is a wistful indietronica anthem. The best cut is “No Intention,” a linear and propulsive techno track that is sent into the emotive stratosphere by Leiláh’s layered vocals. The tracks with Leiláh on are generally the best and most resonant moments, particularly “No Intention”’s similarly-dreamy follow-up, “Forward”.
The biggest problem with The Rat Road, besides its hefty scale, is the fragmentary nature of many tracks. Even some of the highlights feel short and occasionally underdeveloped. Several are extremely misjudged, such as “Coppa,” which takes a poem read by activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal and backs it with horror film strings and eerie atmospherics. Jamal’s poem is excellent, but the inclusion of “Coppa” is completely out of place in the running order and tonally jarring within the context of the album. There’s others (the psychedelic “Go To Ground,” the dead-end “Wasted”) that feel like sketches, half-finished ideas that turn The Rat Road into a bit of a slog.
Jerome seems to have spent the last seven years building up such a backlog of music that he hasn’t quite got the clearest eye for sorting the wheat from the chaff. There’s brilliance here, but also moments of tedium. The Rat Road needs to be trimmed down and a few choice cuts bulked up, because right now it often feels like a hard drive dump, one that’s interspersed with some great tracks but doesn’t satisfy as a cohesive collection.