There was a time when the musical demarcations separating musical style and genre were fixed, immutable, to be crossed on pain of death. Well, not death but perhaps ridicule and ostracisation from the gatekeepers of the tribal sound. You were a raver or a goth, a hip-hop head or an indie kid, popster or rocker, never the twain shall meet and woe betide anyone found wandering outside the music boundaries after dark. Thankfully, those days are long gone and a generation or two of music-makers have since grown up in a musical landscape where anything goes, where rules are made to be broken and where strange genre-hopping, gene-splicing musical experiment is the norm.
An album like Alternate Realities couldn’t have existed back in those days, not just because of the technology available to musicians but because of the broad-minded attitude that it is founded upon. Although the underlying groove that typifies most of the music found here is garnered from clubland dance floors, hip-hop traditions and cutting-edge electronica, it is what is layered on top of these beats and bass lines that really makes the album stands out.
Across just the first two tracks you can see a curious mind and a penchant for musical mix, match and meld at work. The opening salvo, The Second Chapter, is a laidback rap set to ambient electronic drifts which acts as the perfect introduction to the musical eclecticism and honest, heartfelt lyricism to follow. This is quickly followed by Keep Busy, which runs as a sort of down-beat, indie stream of consciousness and a guitar lick that The Cure would have been happy to have stumbled across. And that, in a nutshell, shows you the breadth and vision of Ultra_eko’s approach. No genre out of bounds, no subject too personal.
Cash, Money Moolah is a swirl of funky pop that grooves its way along the poverty line, Where You At? is a slow, hypnotic, diatribe put to an alt-electronica take on a skittering trap beat and Day Tripper is a dance-floor hustle on the subject of tabloid coupon holiday deals and their part in low-level smuggling! Usurped King seems almost to tip its hat, on the choruses at least, to Morrissey…and that is a bold thing to do these days. But bold is the name of the game here.
And if the music is a wonderful exercise in cross-pollination and fusion, sampling and assimilating, lyrical it is just as awesome. A perfect storm of street-level narratives and kitchen sink dramas, honesty and edge, the same gritty pathways that Mike Skinner marked out with The Streets and which the likes of Sleaford Mods followed him down but also plenty of high-brow references and crafty cultural asides too. It isn’t often that John Donne makes an appearance in contemporary music! Good to see you, John.
As much as Alternate Realities is a revelation in the way that it merges musical styles, bends genres to its will and creates something startlingly new out of familiar sounds, it is the lyrics that stand out most for me, especially the stark and recognisable scenarios and scenes that they paint. It is their ability to really get to the core of the lives of those on the bottom rung of the ladder, like a grime version of Ken Loach, and the way Ultra_eko blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, social comment and conspiracy theory, stark realism and weed-addled dreams.
Alternate Realities is the perfect album for the here-and-now, it is also one which seems to become more impressive with each track it reveals. Deftly dancing across numerous sonic stepping stones, these 15 tracks are a document of Britain today, the real Britain, the underdog Britain, underdog anthems which navigate their way through failed relationships, political fall out, illicit schemes and hopes for better lives, of ducking, diving, of hand to mouth existence and of looking after number one. But amongst these stark realities, there is always hope and a sense that it is by accepting your own broken-down realities that you can rise above them.
It is an album of our time, an important album. None other than Bruce Springsteen once sang of saviours rising from these streets, I just never expected that saviour to come from West Croydon.