SBTRKT: The Rat Road album review - not restful, frequently frustrating, but never dull

SBTRKT  (pr handout)
SBTRKT (pr handout)

It’s unfortunate timing that SBTRKT, pronounced “Subtract”, should make his comeback in the week that Ed Sheeran releases an album of the same name, but the Cambridgeshire producer Aaron Jerome is probably used to being overshadowed. When he first appeared at the start of the last decade, making a ghostly post-dubstep sound that also echoed the electronic soulfulness of Massive Attack, he wore a tribal mask to conceal his identity. The self-titled SBTRKT album in 2011 made stars out of its guest singers – Jessie Ware, who released her fifth album to much acclaim last week, and Sampha, who won the Mercury Prize for his solo work and went on to sing with Drake and Kendrick Lamar – not so much the producer in the background.

More recently, Jerome has been quieter still. Apart from 25 minutes of music in 2016, this is his first full length release in almost a decade. And it is long, with 22 tracks that feel like even more as he flits hyperactively between sounds and speeds within a single song. He says that he has written around 1,500 tracks since he last released anything. The Rat Road sounds like it’s crammed with as many of those ideas as possible.

It can make for a frustrating listen. The buzzing keyboard chords of Rain Crush sound like an intriguing intro to a full song, but they’re gone again after 30 seconds. Grime veteran D Double E has a tense verse that sounds like it’s going somewhere, but the anticipated beats never arrive. You Broke My Heart But Imma Fix It sticks around for a bit longer, though its jerky syths, frantic handclaps and spliced, distorted vocals still feel unsettlingly restless.

In pre-release promotion, Jerome has sounded frustrated with the state of the music industry today as well as the wider world. He seems unhappy with the idea of making music to fit on Spotify playlists, and has talked about a cost of living/pandemic/Brexit-fuelled “much wider feeling of exhaustion”. The Rat Road accordingly sounds tense and jittery, with Sampha’s pillowy voice destabilised by synth stabs and a strange shift into carnival beats on LFO. Other segments are worth rewinding so they hang around for longer, such as the fiery breakbeats of You, Love and Leiláh’s blissful turn on the glacially atmospheric No Intention. A journey on The Rat Road isn’t restful – start to relax and Jerome invariably lurches off in another direction – but it’s never dull.