Despite having been around for more than 25 years, in some ways drum and bass still feels like a very young genre. Sure, you’ve got the basshead and breakbeat crowds, who are gradually starting to look more wizened as the years go by, but new drum and bass producers are emerging across Europe and beyond almost constantly, and even the most obscure bookings still draw young crowds.
What’s really heartening is seeing the upstart labels morphing into straight-up legacies. Hospital Records turned 20 last year, Metalheadz is going on 23 and now Critical Music is about to turn 15. Critical Music is a particularly interesting label to examine, as it’s almost acted as a compass for the development of the genre. Any time a new style of beatmaking surfaces, chances are you’ll hear it first on a Critical release. Dozens of producers can credit their early success to Critical, and their roster only strengthens with each passing year.
With their birthday looming, Critical are having a huge party in London to mark the occasion, featuring a huge line-up. In the run-up to this, we decided to examine the history of the label, tune by tune. These 15 aren’t necessarily the best tracks Critical have ever put out, but I’d say that they were all, in some way or another, defining points for them. Happy birthday, Critical, keep up the good work.
2002 – Dphie – Five Faces (Vector Burn Remix)
Critical was founded by Kasra, and the first release they put out was Five Faces/Evolve.2. Dphie was shortly followed by Vector Burn, and towards the end of 2002 they put out a record together, including this remix, which has since become a mainstay in the genre. For me, no track better represents the direction Critical was heading in at the beginning than this one.
2003 – Calibre – Rockafella
Truly one of the greatest names in the history of drum and bass, if not the greatest, Calibre got started on things in the late ’90s, and in the early 2000s he was playing around with his own label – Signature Records – so he didn’t have much time to release material elsewhere. Despite this, he put out Rockafella/Barca with Critical, probably their most significant signing to date at that time, and the beginning of one of their most important partnerships.
2004 – Silent Witness & Break – Dialling Out
In 2004, Critical picked up yet another future legacy producer – Break. Break stared out on Eastside a year prior, and he’s since become a major player in the underground scene, famed for his collaborative work. This 12″ was his first partnered release with Silent Witness, but far from his last.
2005 – Funky Technicians – Bandits
You may have heard of Total Science – Paul Smith and Jason Greenleigh – but what about their side project – Funky Technicians? Under this far less well known moniker, the pair produced far more upbeat, rolling fare that the layman would never even think of linking back to Total Science. The duo have released on Critical under both names, but their first release on the label was this little slice of energising loveliness.
2006 – Breakage – Blue Mountain
Breakage has a reputation for never sitting still. He’s been prominent on the dnb scene for years, but forays into dubstep, jungle and other genres are an accepted and expected part of his approach. Blue Mountain is certainly a dnb track, but it’s a reserved, sinister piece which cares more about getting into your head than getting you out of your chair. This was the second of a very limited set of releases on Critical by Breakage, and that’s part of what makes it so special.
2007 – Chris.SU & Concord Dawn – Sacrifice
By this point, the drum and bass scene had begun gaining a huge amount of momentum not only in Europe, but worldwide. Chris.SU, an accomplished producer from Hungary, released his first 12″ on Critical in 2004, and then in 2007 he partnered up with Concord Dawn, who themselves were responsible for championing the scene in New Zealand. This was a massive partnership, and a huge hit out of left field. Oh and the track is a banger.
2008 – Spectrasoul – Alibi
When they emerged in 2006, SpectraSoul almost immediately became one of the most sought-after names in the genre. Metalheadz wanted them, Exit wanted them, and Critical wanted them. It wasn’t until 2008 that they put anything out on Critical, but it ended up being one of the defining points of their early career. Alibi became an underground hit almost immediately, with its deep, minimalist approach, refusing to hem itself into any of the adhering standards of the time. When you listen to Delay No More, their debut album from 2012, you can hear how that sound developed in the subsequent 4 years.
2009 – Kasra – Perception
Despite doing all the work necessary to advance the label, Kasra still finds time to put his own material out. In 2009, he released material on Critical twice – an Insider Info remix of his track with Cyantific, Outer Limits, and this, which came out on the limited edition CRIT041. In typical Kasra fashion, it’s a bizarre, fascinating track which bleeps and bloops across a dark, bassy sci-fi soundscape, blending breakbeat with dnb effortlessly. Truly one of his finest tracks.
2010 – Sabre – Marvel
2010 was an especially important year for Critical – they put out their first full LP. Sabre started working with Critical in 2008, having already put out material with Horizons, Shogun and Osiris. A Wandering Journal is a varied, interesting LP with an impressive bill of guest producers, balancing itself between the more minimal original mixes on side A and the storming club mixes on side B.
2011 – Enei – Cracker
Enei is one of bass music’s greatest success stories. After diligently working away on dubstep and dnb tracks in his home nation of Russia, he steadily started picking attention overseas, starting with a 2007 release on Fokuz. From there, he started working with labels as reputable as Metalheadz and, yes, Critical. 2011 was a huge year for them, putting out releases from Calibre, Foreign Concept, S.P.Y. and Cyantific, but it was also the year the first Critical/Enei release dropped. He’s been a permanent fixture on the label ever since.
2012 – Cyantific & Kasra – Minerva
Critical bookended 2012 with two major EP releases – Sequence One and Sequence Two, both intended as showcases of how far the label had come. Appropriately, Kasra had a very direct hand in Sequence Two, producing collaborative tracks with Cyantic and Enei. The former is one of the most ridiculously muscular tunes Critical have ever put out, a dizzying assault of scitzophrenic percussion, soaring vocals and synth blasts.
2013 – Ivy Lab – Afterthought
2013 was another bumper year for Critical, with Mefjus, Enei, Foreign Concept and Emperor all releasing EPs under their banner. This was the first solo release Emperor ever put out on Critical, but they had another debut in 2013 – Ivy Lab. Their debut single, ‘Oblique’, came out at the beginning of the year, shortly followed by Afterthought/Brat, a more potent introduction to the London trio, and a perfect precursor to their first EP, which Critical would release the following year.
2014 – Emperor & Mefjus – Void Main Void
In terms of sheer intensity, you can’t get much better than Emperor and Mefjus. Both of them debuted on Critical in 2012, and 2 years later they joined forces to release one of the most well loved EPs ever to come out on the label – Hello World. It’s a thunderstorm from beginning to end, but the glitchy, atmospheric Void Main Void is surely the highlight.
2015 – Sam Binga & Redders – Tek Nuh Chat
If you ask any basshead about the most exciting artists to enter the game in recent years, two names are going to come up fairly quickly – Om Unit and Sam Binga. Both of them started releasing on Exit in 2013, and Binga was quickly snapped up by Critical. His unique brand of glitchy, footwork infused heaviness has placed him in a class of his own, and nowhere is that more evident than on Nuh Chat, his breakout EP.
2016 – Alix Perez & Ivy Lab – Arkestra
Alix Perez remains one of the most prolific names in drum and bass. He’s released on every label under the sun, and his beats range from the mellow to the alarming to the death defying. Ivy Lab take a similar approach, so when it was announced that the two were coming together on Arkestra, it got people salivating. The release was everything we’d hoped it to be and more, blending the sensibilities of some of the greatest minds in bass music into something beautiful and enthralling.
2017 – Klax – Rekanize
If there’s one trend you may have noticed going through this list, it’s that Critical have a knack for recognising rising talent. Case in point – Klax. The Brightonian crew have only been on the radar since 2014, but Critical didn’t waste any time in signing them. They featured on the Critical:systems roster last year, and now they’ve come out with their first full EP on the label in the form of Rekanize. This was Critical’s first major release of 2017, and on that basis, the future looks bright.
Critical are having a huge night at the Electric Brixton to celebrate their 15th birthday featuring Kasra, Emperor, Ivy Lab, Enei and many more of the names featured on this list. Grab your tickets here.