The term “pretty ugly”, taken literally, means describing something or someone as unseemly. Seeing as that would be a puzzling choice title for a debut album at best, it’s tempting to think DVA employs the term in a binary sense, to describe the inherent contrasts within his music. Just look at the album cover: a conscious acknowledgement that, to an outsider, DVA’s music can seem “ugly” and confused, but peel back slowly and you’ll find layers of innovation and joyfully mind-bending genre-hopping, from UK funky and grime to soul, garage, and house.
If you put so many ingredients into a blender, you can often end up with a mess. DVA tackles this head on: the album’s opening gambit, ‘Reach The Sun’, establishes motifs that are revisited throughout the album. The prettily glitched roulade; the clipped vocal line; the “la la la”; the UK funky swagger; it’s all there. For such a scatterbrained album, such a measure is necessary, acting as the thread that ties the whole together. The use of vocalists, too, give the record some much needed narrative.
The titular track toes the line between aesthetic beauty and club-sensible dirtiness, which is perhaps some insight into the way DVA approached making an album. He’s a DJ by trade – he even had a breakfast show on rinse.fm! – so to make an album intended for home listening would be initially counter-intuitive. Coming from a grime background, DVA’s instinct is to make people dance. ‘Bare Fuzz’ is pure carnival bounce, while ‘Just Vybe’, the instrumental to which has been shaking subs for a while now, has stuttering and rolling drums, a grimy baseline, and funky tabla. With a sassy vocal from Fatima, it’s the most immediate track on show, which just goes to show that bangers are DVA’s bread and butter.
Nonetheless, DVA’s capacity to shake your booty was never in doubt; it’s the downtempo moments on Pretty Ugly that are revelatory… When they come off. ‘Eye Know feat Natalie Maddox’ is the prime example, with Maddox’s dulcet tones floating over its sonic landscape like velvet held over a wind machine. The accompanying music video captures its sexy-yet-unsettling vibe to a tee. Meanwhile, ‘Why You Do feat AL’ finds the evasive middle ground between the dance floor and the living room. There are certainly times when the experiment fails, too. The wet, wandering riffing of ‘Madness feat Vikter Duplaix’ verge towards annoying in its relentlessness, while the final track, ‘Where I Belong’ sounds like Ennio Morricone played on the ‘demo’ button of a Casio keyboard. Which is a lot less interesting than it sounds.
Nevertheless, it’s yet further proof that Hyperdub are breaking the mould with their quest to find the avant-garde in innercity electronic music. So far in 2012, Hyperdub have released Burial’s much lauded Kindred EP, and now DVA’s kaleidoscopic collision of colours and sounds. With albums from the likes of The Bug in the pipeline, Steve Goodman is showing that, eight years into Hyperdub’s life as a label and ethos, it shows no sign of slowing down. Long may it continue.
Pretty Ugly is out on March 20th through Hyperdub.