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Reviewed: Calibre ‘Shelflife 6’

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As one of the most prolific and successful artists in both UK and global electronic music, Calibre has long been setting the bar at dizzying heights with his penchant for exceptionally soulful, emotional music and his enviable, inconceivably deep back catalogue. His discography is impeccable, consistent and loved by countless droves of fans and listeners, and the ‘Shelflife’ series is a huge part of that. Now onto its 6th iteration, this series is Calibre’s way of putting out the music that he’s produced over his extensive, storied career, and is thus a firm fan-favourite. Releasing this Friday, ‘Shelflife 6’ brings together a varied selection of tracks; tracks that both tug on the heartstrings and fire away on the dancefloor. For the fans, this is everything you’ve been waiting for.

Calibre out for a walk

We kick things off with a summer-tinged, sundrenched hop, skip & a jump on ‘Things Like This’. A multitude of expert instrumentation is on show in this first offering, with those evergreen Calibre-keys and strings on full display, supplemented and shadowed by sublime lyrical motifs and fluttering piano riffs; each facet fuses together into a bubbling melting pot that hails the old whilst bringing in the new age. This is already up there with some of my favourite recent intro tracks from past Calibre projects, including ‘No One Gets You’ from 2017’s ‘The Deep’, the DRS-featured ‘People Never Change’ from 2011’s ‘Condition’, and a huge personal favourite that’s close to my heart, ‘All You Got’, which launched the encyclopedic 2010 odyssey ‘Even If’. As those in attendance witnessed, this introductory cut brings back fond memories as one of the many great final tracks at his standout XOYO residency, finely accompanied by the now-legendary SP:MC on the mic, providing a sound juxtaposition that contrasts the beginning and end of an extensive musical journey. I think we’re all agreed, that flowing drumroll just before the b-line is just to die for as well.

This polished gem has been around from as early as 2009, and potentially even earlier, firmly displaying Calibre’s unending dedication to his own back-catalogue. It’s safe to say that, across the entirety of the music industry, few have the capacity to rival this expansive library of sonic aptitude.

As we progress through the album, Calibre’s mystifying musicality really begins to take shape. ‘Years’, premiered over on Skankandbass, is a prime example of this. A sharp, verging on rim shot-sounding snare provides a layered foundation for this expert cut, with a gentle, caressing break taking centre stage for all to behold. A self-professed, classically-trained musician in reality and at heart, Calibre notes in his recent, rare interview with Dave Jenkins for the XOYO podcast, that “one of the first things you learn when playing instruments is that there’s a real curvature involved in subtlety and velocities, and how you strike the drum… how you allow the stick to bounce back off of the kit in a controlled manner”. That attention to detail, that level of ground-level, physical intensity when it comes to music, especially electronic in nature, is what sets Calibre apart and puts him in a gleaming bracket of his own.

I like to think of the ‘Shelflife’ series as an insight into Calibre’s psyche; it’s intriguing to think that this collection of tracks, produced over an extensive period of time, are subliminally impacted by different societies, different societal influences, different goings-on, yet they all come together as one. Thus, we flit between locations & locales; from Belfast to Valentia, to the contemporary streets of Mönchengladbach and Cologne, finally touching down smoothly in the Latinas, escorted to the surface by the Soca-inspired sounds of ‘Latin 2000’. This one’s all body; a 6-minute long, pounding perc workout, with that Latino-etched sunshine, whisked in beautifully along the way. It’s one of those tracks that just conjures up instant imagery, in the same way that ‘Sunrise’, with long-time accomplice DRS, brings up memories of those nights you just didn’t want to end, as daylight slowly crept through the shielded curtains.

One of his longest-awaited and most-cherished tracks, ‘Pillow Dub’, also takes its seat at the highly-esteemed Shelflife table. This one’s a straight head bopper; it’s impossible not to do it! Highly coveted amongst fans & DJs alike, this is a signature Calibre track, and secures the accolade of one of his greatest musical contributions to the world at large. A firm-favourite in his sets, this one is equally suitable across many outlets; on the dancefloor, for the casual listener, for the audiophile listening intently to every groove and divot; it ticks every box imaginable.

We’re taken deeper into the grotto across the next selection of tunes, namely ‘Guide U Thru’ and ‘Trouble’. The former, a devilish hot-stepper in its own right, quickly picks up the pace and descends down into the murky depths of the metaphorical ocean column. It still holds that aura of godlike intuition and omniscience you always seem to find scratching the surface in Calibre productions, but those feelings are tucked away in favour of a stonecold 5am hit, with a brain-pounding kick drum rattling away audibly, a sharp reminder that when Calibre wants to grind out a subterranean brew, he can do just that and then some. The latter swerves sharply around ‘Guide U Thru’, taking influence whilst also displaying a sharp contrast. This lick is more of a headstrong track, focusing firmly on getting the feet moving, staking its claim as the heaviest track on the LP. If you’re a fan of toe-tapping, darker productions like those found on 4AM, the 8-track swamper that dropped on Doc Scott’s 31 Recordings, or efforts like ‘Instant’, ‘Start Again’ with Chimpo, ‘Posh Boy’ and ‘Iron Balls’, you’ll feel right at home getting down to this pair.

Advancing forward like chapters in a real page-turner of a book, ‘Crazy 4 U’ is next on the assembly line, and it’s possibly my favourite track on the album. Treading delectably between the opposing lines of light and dark, this cut played a starring role in LSB and DRS’ recent ‘Space Age Vol. 3’ mix (listen at 12:52), a tremendous mix that’s received huge support from across the Drum & Bass community. Hold tight Luke LSB and Del – dream team! In many ways, this is a quintessential Calibre track, but that doesn’t mean there’s not copious variety in there – there’s always something more tucked away in there from the multi-talented beatsmith. The background shakers and shuffling percs really do it for me on this.

As we meander through towards the end of this flowing masterpiece, ‘Sense Soiree’ allows us a moment to rest, catch our breath and think back over the journey we’ve all taken. Whether it’s across this LP, past memories of a long-remembered dance at Ambra Night or the beautiful Sardinian coastline, this evocative number conjures positive reflection and nostalgia from the recesses of the mind. It’s a mesmerising, emotional track, and that’s without even touching on its technical aspects. This is one that many will identify with, each in their own way, but the connections will be felt long into the future.

The final two tracks are stark reminders of Calibre’s warm intentions, productive thoughtfulness and laser-focused mentality. The first, ‘Be Beautiful’ is a true summer heater – it’s all blue skies and cool breeze; emotive and powerful, it’s a touching penultimate closer for the album, gradually lowering the tension but never slowing down on the pace, only breaking to refer the listener to more of Calibre’s personified sonic imagery. And thus, we arrive at the finishing line, and there to herald us over the line is ‘When Sunday Goes’, in many ways perhaps the perfect outro and conclusion to this epic. As the body of this project has ebbed and flowed over the 13 individual tracks, this brings them into one; an aural, audiovisual equilibrium.

To finish off the review, I wanted to shine a light on how important Calibre’s work is, and how many lives he impacts on a daily basis. The perfect embodiment of this is the Calibre AKA Dominick Martin Appreciation Society. On the surface, if you saw the name of the group online it may just seem like another fan group, but it is anything but. I’ve been in there since November 2018, and I’ve never encountered such a positive, well-meaning environment; something I’m sure is channelled from the purity of Calibre’s music. It’s hard to sum up in words how important Calibre’s music is to me and in a sense, it’s actually made this review quite difficult, and I’m sure a lot of others in the group feel the same – Calibre’s art makes strangers come together as if they were long-lost best friends, whether it be online in a Facebook group, or on the dancefloor at XOYO.

You just need to be in the crowd for the moment when Calibre’s Alternate Remix of ‘If You Wait’ begins to manoeuvre its way through the stacks, and you immediately understand how it’s possible for you all to come together as one in that small segment of time. The group has grown from an unofficial fan group, to a place that now has longstanding ties with Calibre’s team and the Signature Recordings crew; news and music are trustingly revealed here first, and it’s a heartwarming relationship to behold. To add something special to this review of a truly special, special album, I spoke to John Garratt, founder of the Calibre Appreciation Society, to garner his views on ‘Shelflife’ as an entity, how special this music really is and Calibre himself as an artist.

For a reader who may not be familiar with Calibre’s exceptional work, how would you describe the emotion, empathy and feeling in his tracks? What does this mean for you?

There have been and continue to be many great artists in Drum & Bass, but I think very few have been able to encapsulate that balance of melancholy and subtle power that Calibre’s music can. Some call it soul, I don’t think that summarises it. There’s something very personal about his work which you don’t hear that often. For me, a good example is his track ‘It’s…’, which came out on an old Soul:r EP. It’s my favourite, I think, because it manages to combine raw, driving drums, a simple, powerful bassline and haunting vocals in a way that only Calibre can do. This kind of music is great all the time but seems to have an extra bit of depth when times are hard and I think people identify with that.

Shelflife is unique in that it’s Calibre’s way of releasing the tracks that he’s had hidden away, sometimes from up to 10-20 years back, only showcased within his sets. How important and special is this process for fans?

Very important and very special I’d say. Calibre is unique in that his production is so prolific and of such consistently high quality. Thousands of tracks have been made but many have only been heard in clubs or old radio sets. I think Calibre’s ‘Shelflife’ series is important because it gives the fans the chance to hear the older tracks they love, and also gives us an indirect link back to the artist when popular tunes get released. It’s equally kind (and rare) that the fans have this kind of indirect communication channel to let the artist and record label know how much we like the older tunes. I have to shout out Arne90 who’s done a fantastic job of documenting the unreleased Calibre gold long before the Appreciation Society.

Focusing on ‘Shelflife 6’… now you’ve had time to process, visualise and analyse the project as a whole, what are your thoughts? Any personal favourites from across the 13 tracks?

It’s difficult to answer this without coming across as the clearly-biased Appreciator I am! The album covers a wide range of feelings and styles, moving from the raw but faithfully-mastered ‘Latin 2000’ to the club-shaking, brooding bass-weight of ‘Trouble’, which I remember causing serious damage at the XOYO nights. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the wonderfully stirring soundscape of ‘Sense Soirée’, a track which builds in classic Calibre style from emotive violin chords to an epic drop. I had that one playing on a walk the other day and found myself drifting away completely, had to make sure I didn’t wander into the road! In short, this album is as varied as it is brilliant and I think the group will appreciate it…if you’ll pardon the pun.

As a diehard Calibre fan yourself, what does the ‘Shelflife’ series as an entity, and Calibre as an artist, mean to you?

The killer question! I started to really notice his music around 2003-2004, and ever since then both ‘Shelflife’ and the other releases have been the soundtrack to my life. Whether it’s on the dancefloor with friends or listening at work, there’s always been a tune or album for pretty much every point of my life and I find that very meaningful. I think you get hooked on the music but stay with it because of that connection, and having spoken to a lot of fans and read a lot of posts in the group I think it’s something quite a few of us have. One day I hope to answer this question properly in a podcast for the group because I have some stories that I hope can describe this a bit better than text!

In terms of the ‘calibre aka dominick martin appreciation society™’ group, can you give us some background on it? I’ve been in there since November 18’ and it’s such a blessing; it’s so pure and joyful, no negativity and just appreciating the art.

Thank you! I’ve had a lot of people come up to me in clubs thanking me and asking about it, it’s kind of strange that people know me from a Facebook group, but also cool because they’re such nice people. I remember the beginning, it was June 2016 and I had just come back from a few years working abroad. I was jobless, living with my parents and Marcus Intalex (who’d left a big impression on me from when I met him many years ago) had just passed. With all this, I was feeling pretty low but had recently joined Facebook, mainly due to coercion from the family and an ex, as I wasn’t into social media. I’d seen a couple of other groups devoted to Drum & Bass, but there wasn’t anything solely for an artist so I thought I’d give it a go. I never thought it would be bigger than me and a few friends but the group started to take off. When it got to around 2000 members I realised it was connecting with people so I had a flag of the logo made, mainly to take to Sun & Bass so people could meet up around it. I was amazed at how people responded, I got a lot more requests to join and since then the flag has become a part of the trip. I’ve even seen DRS holding it up on stage! I wouldn’t say creating the group was a planned or even fully-conscious thought, it just felt like the right thing to do. Little did I know what it could create! It’s a lovely group to run but it’s the people who make it.

Finally (putting you on the spot here), are there any particular tracks you can pick out that you’d love to see on a future ‘Shelflife’ iteration, and any messages for the fans reading?

An easy one: ‘Love That’s Lost’. It’s a beautiful tune featuring the man himself on vocals which really speaks to me. I’d like to say big up to Calibre for his music, Chris from Signature for all of his work, Vik Okular for making the gigs brilliant and of course all of the Appreciators™.

Massive thanks to John for taking the time to put these answers together for us, big shout to all the Appreciators spreading love and positivity every day. What an album.

‘Shelflife 6’ drops on 1st May and is available to buy from here

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