The prevalent dubstep sound may still be in its infancy, but it's already produced more essential albums than the 2-step garage scene it originated from, with 2011 U.K. Top Ten efforts from Magnetic Man, Katy B and James Blake joining underground classics from Burial and Skream in the genre's increasingly impressive portfolio. London-based enigma Aaron Jerome, aka the tribal mask-wearing producer/DJ SBTRKT (pronounced subtract), is the latest act to make the leap from FWD club staple to serious album artist with his self-titled debut, whose blend of warbling basslines and syncopated rhythms -- with influences from the world of R&B, Chicago house, old-school garage, and synth pop -- has provided what is, perhaps, dubstep's most genre-straddling effort to date. Signed to the XX's former label, Young Turks, and previously a remixer for the likes of M.I.A., the man of mystery may have some pretty indie credentials, but he's not afraid to embrace his more commercial side, particularly on two of the three female-fronted tracks, "Wildfire," which sees Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano playfully purr over a backdrop of Radio 1-friendly squelchy synths and languid beats, and the unashamedly retro "Pharaohs," whose chopped up acid-house riffs perfectly complement emerging vocalist Roses Gabor's breathless tones. But it's in his more nocturnal offerings that the album is more in keeping with his maverick persona, as he effortlessly glides from twinkling electro to soulful skittering garage and back again on the angelic melodies of "Sanctuary." He soundtracks the end of the night with the woozy synths and spacious rhythms of "Trails of the Past," and reveals a refreshing vulnerability on the Chinese temple blocks, glockenspiels, and ambient electronica of "Hold On," all of which are lavished with the plaintive, honey-layered vocals of Sampha. With such a sense of invention, a few hit-and-miss affairs, such as the self-indulgent knob-twiddling of "Ready Set Loop" and the early noughties Craig David remix feel of "Never Never," are inevitable, but they're the only misfires on a record brimming with energy, vibrancy, and soul. SBTRKT's downtempo, mellow nature means it's a dance album that's unlikely to ever be played in a club, but showing James Blake that sparse, minimal dubstep and well-crafted pop melodies aren't mutually exclusive, it's a daring debut which lives up to the masked man's "next big thing" label. ~ Jon O'Brien
Rolling Stone (p.74) - 3.5 stars out of 5 -- "The vocal-driven songs have an irresistible R&B-once-removed hookiness..."
Spin (p.77) - "[I]t's effortlessly absorbing, with lithe rhythms, bubbling synthesizers, and buoyant vocals conveying Magnetic man-sized hooks with the intimacy of James Blake..."
Spin (p.46) - Ranked #18 in Spin's 'The Top 40 Albums Of 2011' -- "[H]is fusion of underground bass and instinctual dance pop hit just as hard as any wobbling bass drop."
Q (Magazine) (p.123) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[A]s lean and free of clutter as his syncopated moniker, clearing space for guest vocalists to sew in hooks and emotion."
Pitchfork (Website) - "The record pits some emotive and occasionally downcast singing against arrangements that throb nicely, and there's a good sense of balance and variety throughout."
Clash (magazine) - "Over the tracks SBTRKT easily displays a pedigree and sensitivity that should set this dance album apart from its numerous gaggling peers."
Uncut (magazine) (p.98) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "This album essentially serves as a showcase for rising Brit soul singers Sampha and Jessie Ware, who add just the right quantities of sugar and grit."