Depending on your point of view, James Zabilea can be an equally fascinating and frustrating DJ to follow in the electronic scene. Partly due to his quick rise to prominence after support from Sasha, and also due to his young age, it has been easy to watch him publicly explore and mature in his craft. As interesting as that has largely been, it's also been at the expense of focus. He has dabbled in and championed styles that are a bit all over the map in his musical journey over the past few years. Which is fine for the more egalitarian listener, but it has also left others alienated.
In some respects, that storied past of styles is what makes his latest mix set for Renaissance: The Masters Series such a triumph. Not only does it more ably gel some of those disparate past styles, but shows that as he continually distills some of those interests, it can – with some attention and maturity – result in something really unique and rewarding. And ironically, a bit more universal.
The two-disc set is built on the up-and-down approach, with the first disc being a slower, more after hours affair, and the the second disc approaching something more typical of a standard club night. Although this approach isn't completely unique, it's underused, in my opinion. The split in styles offers a chance to experience a DJ in different ways from the normal club atmosphere. And at the same time, trying to keep the two halves from not being completely miles apart from each other is a challenge worth accepting.
Disc One is literally labeled as "Down", so it's meant to be a separate experience, on its own, and not just a lighter buildup to a standard club mix. In addition to simply mixing interesting tracks, Zabiela carried around a digital recorder with him through streets, shops and on travels, in order to capture ambient city life. This is mixed in with the music to nice effect, and gives the disc an added dimension of sound – and perhaps even life – that lets it rise above being just a down-tempo mix. The only other created element includes some occasional spoken-word snippets recorded just for the mix. Although a touch out of place (they could have been left off, to little objection here) they are brief and not overly distracting.
Some of the slower and more intentionally lush points are the highlights of this disc. Near The Parenthesis' "A Brief Walk In The Sea" sets the mood and blends in beautifully to the sumptuous R3solve track "All That You Lost." He even stops to bring in some less current cuts, such as Boards of Canada's "Amo Bishop Roden" and Plaid's "Marry."
Even though constrained to an overall "down" ethos, the first disc still shows a surprising amount of range. The idea of a soundtrack for the day is extremely well executed, and also engaging on multiple levels, as the energy is just as often lively as it is tranquil. There are moments of hip-hop beats (Michna's "Believe In It"), glitchy ambient-electro (for example, the remix of Cyan341's "Pattern" and Modeselektor's "Vote Or Die") and even some turns with light drum 'n bass (Ed Chamberlain's "Zarathustra" and Quivver's "Chasin A Feeling"). The end result is uniformly strong, even as styles interweave and flow throughout the disc.
With the unique feel of the first disc, it's forgivable if the second doesn't quite reach that same level of discovery for the listener. Not to diminish its quality, but simply to say that we're stepping into more familiar territory. However, the nice surprise for this disc is how expertly Zabiela seems to blend some of the styles he has been experimenting with through the years. At its core, this disc is an energetic romp through electro, some tech- and progressive house, and some breaks territories.
This "Up" mix starts off strong with "Afghanistan" by Komytea, who have been displaying some impressive club tracks lately. Things move into slightly darker territory with Paul Woolford's "Surrender", while also managing to keep things melodic. Which is another nice surprise with this disc; things are surprisingly tuneful, given the chosen grouping of styles. There are moments of bangin' club cuts that fill the floor, such as with Komytea's slick "Professional Killers" and Extrawelt's hip hop-tinged "Added Planet." And then there are also some really nice melodies thrown in that catch you as much for their variety as for their appropriateness to the mix. One of the standouts is the Club Mix of Luomo & Apparat's "Love You All", but also the glitched-out melodic sensibility of the closer, "Since You Are Gone" by Oliver Koletzki.
We're also treated to some of James Zabiela's own able productions on this half, with his tracks "Darkness.2" and a remix of "Perseverance" both taking a spin. The first is a bit more minimal and techy, and shares some common stylistic elements with his track "No Other Way But Down" from his Perseverance E.P., which of course also contains the original version of "Perseverance." Both nice tracks – with the latter being a bit more polished than the former – and show off his production skills as well.
It's not all a success, as in between some of the aforementioned tracks there are lulls with sections that are only casually interesting. But it's solid more than it's not, and taken with the first disc makes the total offering a recommended one.
This is a set that is both enjoyable and will probably also see a long shelf life. The downtempo disc alone makes it worth picking up the set. And the "Up" mix comes as a nice bonus, even if it's not quite as solid or original in sound as the first. Zabiela has certainly proven himself with this set, and his selection to be in the Renaissance: The Masters Series looks to be a fitting choice indeed.