Various Artists

Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban, Vol. 1

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This is the first full-scale compilation of the gqom scene originating from Durban, South Africa. Up until the album's release, much of this music was only available via peer-to-peer filesharing, and was heard by very few people outside of the close-knit scene. Hearing it with fresh ears, there are certainly parallels to a few styles of British dance music -- the tracks all have steady tempos around 130 bpm and simple yet polyrhythmic drum patterns, and could easily fit in certain U.K. funky or garage DJs' sets. However, the gqom sound is more menacing than it is celebratory. These instrumental tracks are quite dark and tense, but they never explode into complete panic. They typically start with sturdy, commanding drum patterns and suspenseful synth pads, and add a new element such as a bassline or vocal sample every eight bars or so. It's not instant gratification dance music -- there are a few minor breakdowns here and there but no "drops" -- but it keeps you on the edge of your seat (or, more appropriately, on the dancefloor) and it's utterly intoxicating. Many of the tracks are similar (and they're all around six minutes each), but "Umeqo Emagqomini (Dub Mix)" by Cruel Boyz is the clear standout, with its simple, infectious synth tone and marching beat. Other songs pull the rhythms apart, juxtaposing slower, sludgier beats with faster patterns. Most of the tracks avoid straightforward 4/4 drum patterns, preferring stilted yet still easily danceable rhythms. On occasion, it gets downright cinematic, as with the horns and "Tubular Bells"-like melody of Forgotten Souls' "Sgubhu 6 (Gqom Edit)." It never comes close to being playful, but at least there's a slight bit of levity in the way a flute-like melody dances in halfway through DJ Mabheko's "Syagwaba (704 Gqomu)." All of it is fascinating, and the album is one of the most eye-opening dance releases of 2016.

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