Charles Webster emerged in UK dance music in the 1990s, during the era of the superstar DJ and the super-club. He made his name in deep house, the slower, more soulful offshoot of house music. He was never a showman or would-be rock star, like other DJs of the time. There were no on-brand tales of debauchery (“I think to make party music, you have to party,” Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook once said). His 1999 album All Systems Gone, released under the name Presence, was rapturously received, but its modest chart success underlined its maker’s marginal position in the commercialised world of club music.
Webster has released records under a numerous array of stage names. Decision Time is the first solo album of new material to come out under his own name since 2001’s Born on the 24th of July. It has an interesting cast of guests. Appearances by several South African vocalists point to his new base in Cape Town. Shara Nelson, the UK singer who featured on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, resumes a long history of collaborations with Webster on the track “This Is Real”. US singer and poet Ingrid Chavez, who worked with Prince, appears on two tracks. One of them has been co-produced by the UK electronic musician Burial, who has cited All Systems Gone as an important influence.
The album’s sound is closer to chill-out and trip-hop than house music. It opens with “Burning”, a slow-burner with a handsomely orchestrated beat and mesmerising vocals by Johannesburg singer Sio, who sounds like a late-hours jazz singer serenading the arrival of dawn. “This Is Real” finds Nelson moving through a fog of vocal distortion and hazy synthesiser tones towards clarity. A deep percussive beat links the two states.
Mainly composed and created using computer software, the songs give the lie to the old shibboleth of electronic music as cold and emotionless. Deft use of texture gives them a warm feel. Subtle details catch the ear, like the computer-synthesised woodwind and chiming percussion that accompany the South African vocalist and DJ Thandi Draai as she exhorts us to “focus on the pattern” in “We Belong Together”.
“I Wonder Why” has a voiceover by celebrated Afropop veteran Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, who speaks of self-improvement and, more obliquely, the forces holding back South Africa’s development; an urgent tempo gives his words currency. The album’s perspective reverts inwards with “Music”, in which Draai, accompanied by a supremely languid house beat, sings about listening to a favourite record. An alternate mood of consolation and grief possesses “The Second Spell”, whose nuanced sense of emotional dynamics is indicative of the quietly powerful way with which Decision Time makes its presence felt.
‘Decision Time’ is released by Dimensions Recordings