Subterranean frequencies

[Young Echo @ Old Police cells, Bristol, 20/06/15]

I keep harassing my friends about Bristol’s Young Echo collective, trying to persuade them to come to one of their nights, like ‘no seriously, it’s gonna be some double-triple next level shit’, or words to that effect. Yet again, there are no takers, so I head out on my own, one of the limited paper tickets available from Idle Hands in Stokes Croft folded into my wallet. It’s been almost a year since I first landed in Bristol, and almost a year since I first attended one of these nights. It’s worth writing about again though, because as an experience, as well as an insight into the city’s mutating, multi-headed soundsystem culture, the nights are unsurpassed.

The venue has changed from The Exchange to the Old Police Cells in central Bristol’s bridewell complex. Subterranean and decaying, it’s not a bad place to be a weirdo loner engaging in some solitary clubbing: the main room is dark and narrow, with a minimal bar selling beer, cider and spirits, and you can skulk in the corners unnoticed. The event has not been heavily advertised, and while the crowd is is dense enough for the vibes to be strong, it doesn’t feel overcrowded. This is also part of the Young Echo aesthetic: paying little attention to the mainstream, focusing their energies on the already converted.

Even though this is the third or fourth of the collective’s eventa I’ve attended, I’m never sure exactly what to expect. In the past, I’ve encountered everything from early 90s hip hop, to dark, dirty grime and dubstep; and all sorts of noise and sonic vandalism: singers screaming into microphones and writhing around on the floor. Tonight, when I first enter, all I hear is a barely decipherable murmur of bass and minimal beats. There’s a brief set of quietly euphoric hip hop, interspersed with obscure records that I couldn’t begin to name. When Ishan Sound takes to the decks, I know that there will be no fucking about. A formidable DJ and producer at the peak of his craft, it’s during his set that I come to experience the potency of the soundsystem. You often hear the term ‘bass weight’ being used to refer the feeling you get in your chest when the bass frequencies start rattling your ribcage. It’s a reassuring feeling in many ways, like you’re being caressed or massaged (Bristol stalwarts Smith and Mighty once titled one of their albums ‘Bass is Maternal’.). What I feel tonight though is not so much weight as motion, as if the movement of the speaker cones is actually going to push me backwards and shake the hairs out of my nostrils.

I lose track of the constantly collaborations between members of the group, but the bizarrely named Asda – a joint project between Vessel and Chester Giles – represents the other extreme of the crew’s take on soundsystem culture: moving away from the depth and warmth of dub-derived music yet using the dimensions of a reggae/dubstep system to violate audience expectations by pummelling them with noise.

London-based Tapes follows up with a set of techy, digital reggae. By this point in the evening there’s already a sizeable huddle of Bristolian producers on the other side of the decks; amassing around their comrades in a mirror-image of the audience. Several people spot Mala lurking behind the decks but it isn’t until around 2 in the morning that we come to understand that the ‘special guest’ of the evening is in fact the Digital Mystikz co-founder himself. Needless to say, his set almost destroys the foundation of the entire building, setting every particle of matter in the space vibrating. But the fact that he is there at all shows the incredibly high esteem in which Bristol’s low-key scene is held, including by those who pioneered the very sounds being played.

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