It’s difficult to give background to London-based musician and producer Aaron Jerome. For one, his stage name, SBTRKT (pronounced “subtract”), is meant to create a distance between his personality and his music. Also, he wears native ceremonial masks while on stage to insure his anonymity. Yet, when I listened to his most recent single, “Hold On,” I found the music to possess a deeply personal element. This forces me to question: how far is Jerome really removed from his music?
The first track is entitled “Hold On” and exhibits instrumentation strangely and refreshingly unique to EDM. The intro consists of acoustic thumb piano, a subdued, somber bass line, and an airy, falsetto vocal line. At a minute and half, he introduces a quiet melodic line played on a xylophone, creating an eerie, unsettling atmosphere. “You’re giving me the coldest stare, like you don’t even know I’m there,” sings Jerome at the track’s end chorus, leaving listeners’ reflective and vaguely lonely.
After listening to this track, I was not entirely sure what to make of it. The music itself is gorgeous, intricately nuanced, a refreshing mix between modern electronics and acoustic African instrumentation, however, I was not entirely sure of the audience Jerome is attempting to connect with. Is he hoping for people to get up and dance to this track, or is he trying to contact people who are sitting alone in their bedrooms wearing noise-cancelling headphones and listening to the music from an Ipod?
The second track, entitled “Ride to Freedom,” is far livelier and more extroverted than “Hold On.” The intro consists of a chaotic synth line over a simplistic synth drum beat, with a droning synth bass line in the background. Around a minute and half, the beat drops out, and the chaotic synth line takes precedence over the music. Sounding similar to a vocal solo, this section of the song utilizes the synthesizer in an intriguing and non-traditional fashion, and when the music reenters around the two-minute mark with the addition of a tambourine and grittier synth tones, the song explodes with paranoid, manic intensity. The song continues in this manner, exhausting its driving energy for a full minute before dropping off suddenly.
I found “Ride to Freedom” an interesting song overall, but I was not as emotionally affected by it as I was “Hold On.” I also felt that the track was a bit short, and could have been developed more melodically and rhythmically. An entertaining track for certain, but ultimately forgettable.
The final track, entitled “Hold On (Sisi Bakbak Remix),” was by far the most unique and well-developed on the album. The remix artist (rumored to be Radiohead’s, Thom Yorke) opens the track by pitching Jerome’s vocals up an octave and layering them over what sounds to be a reversed bass line that pans left to right, creating a quietly threatening atmosphere. The song grows in intensity as the bass line becomes heavier and harsher, and around one minute, the track becomes openly danceable with the introduction of a simple drum beat. One of the more intriguing elements of the track is its use of vocal samples, most notably those heard around 1:30 and 3:00, sounding similar to a chorus of ghost children chanting and moaning softly in the background. Near the end of the track, the music grows a bit redundant, as no new elements are introduced, but regardless of this minor shortcoming, I’d still consider this song my favorite on the album.
Walking away from “Hold On,” I am unsure what to think or feel. I am left with the question: is this EDM, or is it something entirely different? There is such a unique mixture of influences and instrumentation, and this makes the music difficult to place under the umbrella of a specific genre. Furthermore, the music is so markedly inward that it diminishes any want to get up and let-loose on the dance floor. Ultimately, I wish the single was longer, because its faint, bleak textures mixed with its harsh, threatening atmospheres did a lot for me emotionally. Admittedly, I didn’t think to expect something like this from an EDM artist, but SBTRKT seems to be willing to go beyond borders.