This Roni Size/Reprazent article was written by James Sweeney, a GIGsoup contributor
Over the course of its 23 year history, the Mercury Music Prize has been no stranger to upset victories, from bold leftfield choices that have enhanced the credibility of the award (Portishead, PJ Harvery), to eyebrow raising selections from niche genres (Talvin Singh) and occasionally outright clangers that must cause the exact sort of twitching embarrassment to members of the selection panel as one would expect from a member of Liverpool’s 1996 F.A. Cup final team upon hearing the words “Cream .. Armani .. Suit” (M People! Seriously?)
1997’s winner of music’s most prestigious gong was Roni Size and Reprazent for their drum n bass crossover album ‘New Forms’. The pioneering album was victorious in a class that in hindsight reads like an embarrassment of riches with the likes of Radiohead, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Suede, Primal Scream and errmmm Spice Girls all included.
Released in June 1997, the album was the brain child of Size, already an acclaimed DJ and producer in the drum and bass scene who assembled Reprazent, a collective of musicians, singers and MC’s to create what is regarded by some as the genres defining moment. But how does it sound in 2015?
To begin with, the most gripping thing about listening to ‘New Forms’ is the head spinning eclecticism and the unbelievable looseness across the albums two discs and 23 tracks. Just when a tune feels as though it’s falling into familiar territory, it changes completely in tempo, mood and style leaving the listener wondering where the hell it’s going to go next. The album’s lead single and most renowned number ‘Brown Paper Bag’ has aged remarkably with its moody, mellow beginning making way for the frantic, trippy sound that occupies the majority of the songs 9 minutes.
Rather than remain confined by the drum n bass genre, ‘New Forms’ boldly incorporates the sounds of jazz, hip hop, soul and house throughout the album. ‘Heroes’ features hypnotic, soulful vocals that echo over the relaxed jazz tones before spiralling into a propelling drum sequence that morphs the tune into a different beast altogether. Better yet, is the excellent ‘Share The Fall’ with its smooth vocals proving a direct contrast to the sleazy bass lines and standard fast paced drumming.
Unfortunately, unlike many of the other albums on 97’s shortlist, ‘New Forms’ does not make for a consistently engaging listen throughout. A 22 track album is a lengthy release by anyone’s standards and unfortunately this means that it’s likely to drag for anyone but the most passionate drum n bass disciples. Also the second CD, although musically diverse does not have anywhere near as many high points as CD 1 (the twitchy ‘Change My Mind’ being a notable exception) and this leaves the impression that the album could have done with being trimmed down a little to create a more consistent release.
Overall, despite the obvious triumphs of this acclaimed album, it’s difficult to argue that this was the record that deserved to be crowned Mercury winner in this particular year. 1997 had an exceptional class of nominees and it’s hard to make a case for ‘New Forms’ deserving the nod over the likes of Radiohead’s harrowing masterpiece ‘OK Computer’ or game changing dance albums like ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ (Chemical Brothers) or ‘The Fat of the Land’ (Prodigy). Even though previous winners Suede and Primal Scream’s respective albums ‘Coming Up’ and ‘Vanishing Point’ are rarely considered either band’s magnum opus, both were outstanding artistic statements which would’ve been equally as worthy of a surprise triumph.
Despite the controversy, Roni Size and Reprazent can be immensely proud that they created an album with a lasting legacy that remains an essential listen to drum n bass loyalists while still acting as one of the main gateway albums for people new to the genre.