The “is grime a sub-form of hip hop?” debate has raged for years now and while nearly all of the genre’s major players have had their say, the dregs of forum culture are still ablaze with cathectic “controversy”. And while countless words have been scribed in an attempt to contextualize grime’s past and future, the fact of the matter is that the genre is only ten-plus years old and, essentially, needs more time before its legacy can be analyzed with any sort of clarity. A far more worthwhile goal in 2014 is to draw tangible connections between disparate sonic and cultural elements within both grime and hip hop. The atmospheric rattle of gun shots in both Lil Wyte’s Memphis odysseys and Jammer’s best instrumental work. The joyously over-the-top chipmunk sampling techniques utilized by Dipset production duo The Heatmakerz and Blackjack. The contemplative, dagger-like wordplay of Trim and Scarface. The fact of the matter is that the Atlantic is less a cultural barrier than a short wall meant to be leapt over, chipped away at and, eventually, torn down.
New York-based producer Celestial Trax has, quite literally, leapt over the wall after spending time living in London. His latest EP, Paroxysm, was released on Rinse and features what he considers a “rainy gloomy London night” vibe, but he’s hardly a purest and often, both directly and indirectly, references hip hop, jungle, footwork and contemporary R&B in his productions. The influence of American luminaries as disparate as Young Chop and James Nasty are reticent on Paroxysm alongside the more obvious Devil Mix and Metalheadz influences and the EP thrives when it picks up a particular emotion and expounds on it. For most of the EP, that emotion is anxiety and Paroxysm can be viewed as a genre-blended explication of disquietude. On Paroxysm, that anxiety is directly rooted in the physical environment of the aforementioned “gloomy London night,” a tangled web of apprehension and sublimated hysteria. Unfortunately, in electronic music, the subject has been touched on ad nausea and while the kitchen sink approach to Paroxysm is its greatest strength, the emotional superficiality gives it a peripatetic monotony at times.
Which is exactly why the move to New York has done wonders for the Celestial Trax sound. Vocal-like melodies drowned in squarewaves no longer take on the maudlin character they used to. Every kick, metallic swipe and chime seems to have fallen into place and his work with vocalists has taken on a singular focus. Anxiety is still the dominant emotion, but it’s a far more nuanced anxiety. His Astral Plane mix is made up of twelve original tracks, features MCs Shady Blaze and Tynethys, and, considering his adherence to crafting “songs” vs. “tracks”, is more of a production mix than something a DJ’s DJ might put together. Again, the strain of the austere urban environment takes center stage, but it’s appended this time with desire, loss and just enough melancholy. With a small, but effective hardware set-up, Celestial Trax has synthesized his influences into a sound that functions with or without a vocalist and with a breadth of affecting inputs and outputs. Realist hip hop (“Stargate”) sits alongside druggy, elegiac edits (“I Don’t Sell Molly No More”) and foreboding, on-the-cusp grime instrumentals (“Illumination”) that could easily find a home in a Visionist set. The wealth of influences are still palpable, but they have been compounded into a sound that Celestial Trax can proudly call his own.