DJ Format: Devil’s Workshop
(Project Blue Book)
Bristol based hip-hop artist DJ Format returns with an album for our disorientating and fragmentary times. Stitching together a vast range of sounds, the result is a carefully composed and immersive soundscape of ideas…
Amongst all of this mess, there is a real art in being able to locate disparate cultural bits and assemble them into something new and coherent. DJ Format’s kaleidoscopic new album does just that. Like one of those expert restorers on the daytime TV show Money For Nothing – where craftspeople are given discarded household items to renovate – DJ Format is standing on the edge of the council tip of culture picking out old remnants to radically restore. Honing his craft across six LPs and more than two decades of musicianship, Format’s new album Devil’s Workshop deftly layers together vast sounds into one exploratory whole. The cacophony of life is neatly reassembled in its 10 tracks.
By sewing together such a wide range of sources, the music reflects something of the bittiness of consumption. It’s hard not to see some parallels with our tech saturated cultures, where shared content circulates wildly on social media and algorithmic platforms filter our news feeds or recommend our next song, film, TV show, game or book. The result of this overwhelming amount of stuff is that we experience culture in bits. We tune in and out. Devil’s Workshop is fragmentary music for fragmentary times. Sticking together a brick-a-brac of sounds into a brilliant collage, DJ Format has produced a substantial and surprisingly smooth sonic canvass.
Of course, the compiling of samples and sounds has a very long history in hip-hop. This LP calls upon those traditions. Yet the layered textures, sonic themes and varied styles of Devil’s Workshop seem to refresh those traditions rather than simply imitating them. The sheer vastness of the reference points is staggering. Despite this, it never feels overwhelming or disconnected. The mixture of bits is immersive rather than alienating.
There is a unity to the collection too. The listening experience is of a single undulating piece of music. It is a soundscape that rolls out like a long carpet. Amongst the flow, there are moments of solidity. The tracks are temporarily anchored in place by a particular vocal line or sonic hook before moving onto the next bit of terrain.
In terms of the tracks themselves, Disaster Time is perhaps the most instant and direct. The repeated vocal line gives it a standout feel. Brainstorm has a similar punctuated character. And the delicate vocal on Blind Man also causes the listener to pause. Despite these moments, the tracks make far more sense when listened to in their context. This is music to be listened to as an album.
Devil’s Workshop has clearly been conceived as a whole. Each track has its place within the overall flow. Where streaming might push us toward consuming single tracks, DJ Format is producing music that should be listened to in its entirety. Rather than snappy headlines bouncing around on social media feeds, Devil’s Workshop is more like a long-form essay: immersive, carefully composed and revealing. It’s interesting that something that on the surface is cut together and assembled from snippets of sound actually defies the push toward consuming things in tiny chunks. There is an implicit defence of the album in this record.
There are also some real depths. The eclecticism behind this type of production is hard to fathom. The album pulls on a wide range of sounds and sources, many of which wouldn’t naturally sit together. This genre melting quality could easily have fallen to pieces under the pure weight of the different references. It might have been pulled apart by all these components. Instead, DJ Format becomes a trusted tour guide. As the looping opening track of Time To Listen segues into the classic retro beats of The Light, the album is hard to leave. The layers of sound draw your attention inwards.
What is brilliant about DJ Format’s new album is that it pulls together so many shards of culture without ever feeling disjointed. As the keleidoscope keeps turning there remains a seamlessness to the production. By both acknowledging the chaos and forging it into sonic patterns, the beauty of Devli’s Workshop is in how it smooths over the joins and takes the listener through a carefully curated and deeply plush soundscape of ideas.
Words by Dave Beer.