(All Points, released 10 March)
Bearcubs, the project of London-based musician Jack Ritchie, gained traction back in 2014 when his woozy, late-night/early-morning tracks and remixes made the rounds on BBC Radio 1. A BBC Introducing set at Glastonbury 2015 and the release of his breakthrough single ‘Paper Walls’ cemented Bearcubs’ reputation among fans of UK garage and house-inspired pop. Now, Ritchie returns with gear-shifting EP Underwaterfall, a work of rounded edges and rolling steelpan phrases.
Any lyrical cohesion in opening song ‘Burning Up’ is undercut by abrupt pitch-shifting and vocal doubling, as if Ritchie is consciously attempting to cancel himself out of the mix, submerging himself under an ocean of shapes. In a recent interview, Ritchie cites Underwaterfall’s title track as a thematic purveyor. Truthfully, the song gifts the listener with a moment of lucidity in what is otherwise a work wrapped in mystery. “This could be a dream”, Ritchie murmurs in the chorus over a mounting chord, “or a distant memory”. In Bearcubs’ subaquatic world, dream and reality, past and present, are uncannily linked; how else could his lyrical time-travelling play so well over the gyrating rhythm of a ticking clock? “Is it so easy / to draw a line where both our ends meet / where we can be lost in time?” he sings barely audibly on ‘False Mirrors’, drawing attention to a present as untraceable as that song’s structure.
Ritchie invokes the morning after the rave; a vision, seen through a rippling hangover, of headier times from the night before, evidenced in fragments and tentative recollections. However, if Underwaterfall’s post-rave introspection sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen it before. Doubtlessly, Bearcubs draws life-force from the electronica-producing singer-songwriter fusion of boffins like James Blake and Nicolas Jaar. Sure enough, sombre descending synthesizers and clean, snapping percussion abound on this record. But as it becomes increasingly apparent Blake had always been a melancholic jazz singer imprisoned inside a sampling percussion pad, eagerly awaiting to appear on Jools Holland playing a baby grand, Ritchie seems to be moving in the opposite direction, plunging himself deeper into the ambient obfuscation of the studio.
With the exception of ‘SL001’, a pure and simple modern house banger, Underwaterfall marks a mature transition for Bearcubs, from the Radio 1Xtra-pop-readymade of 2016’s Chroma, to something that may prove to set him apart from the throng of post-dubstep imitators.