“If you think about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it starts with the casino fight, and then they go into the aeroplane, and they jump out of the aeroplane and land on a mountain, and it goes down into the water… that's exciting.” Kirk Thompson leans in on that last word. “When you hear the first track on The Edge Of Everything it sounds like it’s gonna be a jungle tune, but then it comes through with a completely different arrangement and it doesn't do anything a normal jungle tune does. ‘Am I even in that territory anymore?’ Well, by the end of the track, you know you're not.”
Sometimes it’s tricky to see exactly where an artist is coming from when they explain the intention behind their work, but when Thompson describes the opening of his album with the hi-octane narrative of a Spielberg classic, it makes complete sense. “Hegel Dialectic” charges out of the gate on a snappy break, sounding like it’s plotting the fastest route towards a drum & bass banger. The drop of the first monumental organ chord quickly tells you a different plan is at work here, and so begins the thrill ride that marks the return of Krust – The Edge Of Everything.
As Krust, or sometimes DJ Krust, Thompson has been a vital and influential presence in the jungle and drum & bass scene since the early 90s. His work, as well as that of his Full Cycle peers Roni Size, DJ Die and Suv, is synonymous with the evolution of Bristol soundsystem culture. He’s laid down too many classics to list, skirted major label spotlights and left a monumental mark on the culture. On The Edge Of Everything, it’s not decades of D&B innovation that are guiding him, but rather the awe-inspiring impact of great cinema.
“I remember when I came out of the cinema when Roni and I saw The Matrix, we didn't speak all the way home. And the same thing when I saw Interstellar with my partner. That's what I'm investing in. I'm not trying to get you to dance. I want you to have an experience you will remember and you can come back to. For me, it's like listening to Public Enemy at St. Paul's Carnival. Listening to ‘Eric B Is President’. Those experiences. Even just saying it now I'm getting palpitations.”
From foundational experiences at Afro-Caribbean carnivals to hitting the charts as part of Fresh 4, Thompson was in the cut and thrust of the music game from an early age, and the meteoric arc of his life as Krust took him far and wide. Up to 2006 he’d released three albums and a monumental amount of singles and EPs, and locked into the relentless gigging pattern of a top tier drum & bass DJ – with all the pressures that come with it. Then, the releases stopped and Thomspon stepped back from the scene.
“I'd been living this life as Krust for so long, I was completely out of touch with who I really was, and I needed to discover that person again.”Over a period of seven years, Thompson kept one eye on music while pursuing another path as a lifestyle coach via his consultancy, Disruptive Patterns. Eventually, casual sound experiments in the studio started to bloom back into a new workflow as he discovered the capabilities of soft synths and plugins. The opportunity to make a sample pack presented itself, and it revolutionized the way Thompson worked in the studio.
“In the old days I would sit in the studio, get all the sounds up and just attack one tune until it was done,” Thompson explains. “But what started to creep in was I would spend more time just staring at a blank screen with like, one beat on there. Then I got a phone call from my publishers about doing a sample library. I just set the room up so that everything was working, and for about three months I never tried to finish a tune. In that process I just made loads of 16 or 32 bar loops, and all I would do is put the arrangement up and start matching loops and sounds together. After a while, I could just hear which each loop needed. After about three months, I had four or five tunes finished without even trying. It completely flipped my script, so that's the way I always work now.”
With a renewed workflow and releases on Full Cycle and elsewhere, Thompson’s thoughts naturally led to creating a more extensive body of work. He cast his mind back over what he refers to as his “widescreen era” – seminal tracks from the turn of the century like “True Stories”, “Future Unknown”, “Soul In Motion” and “The Last Day”. Thompson spent months immersing himself in those tracks to imagine how he would continue that line of expression in the present moment, with his renewed working practice.
“After I started to think about making an album, the next question was, What tools do I need to tell this story?” Thompson says. “For me, 70s music is my era. Growing up listening to George Clinton and George Benson, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder. That sound had something, and then early hip hop as well, when it started to get fat and crunchy on the SSL desks. ‘That’s the sound I want for this album. So how do I go about getting that?’”
There are certain elements within the Krust studio set up that could be relied on to deliver some of the particular sound Thompson was striving for – his trusted EMU E64 sampler, for example. But to achieve that particular, venerated 70s studio sound he had in mind, he had to start exploring new digital emulations in saturation, compression and EQ, particularly the Neve and SSL plugins.
“I wanted to really experiment with how I could use plugins, and run everything through these chains to see what would happen once I started to mess around with that sort of old-school feel but with a new, digital mentality to production. I was interested in the effect if I just push things too far. I used the whole thing as a sketching board and I wasn't precious about the sound. On the album, you can hear there are lots of hisses and glitches and off-key edits. I just left them in there. Because, for me, it's a brushstroke, right?”
Making a scene
Thompson repeatedly speaks about the act of making music in visual terms, citing inspirations from egg-tempera-portrait painter Antony Williams to revered directors like Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. The Edge Of Everything draws on a loosely defined narrative focused on a central protagonist “lost in time… trying to discover who he is.” Specific tracks relate to specific scenes – moments of high drama where the unnamed journeyman faces pivotal decisions and leaps of faith. As Thompson describes these moments within the story, their connection with the music becomes clear.
“Listen to the music the way you would watch a film,” he says. “That's how I'm approaching it. I'm not really obeying the rules of music, per se. I'm working out the best way to tell this story. At the end of “Negative Returns” the strings are high, they build up and up. That's the protagonist, who's standing at the edge of the cliff, being told, ‘Come to the edge.’ He says, ‘No.’ ‘Come to the edge.’ He says, ‘No.’ He goes to the edge and he gets pushed, and he’s afraid he’s going to hit the bottom, but he never does. That's what those strings represent.”
If there’s one track on The Edge Of Everything which aggravates the tension between Thompson’s committed experimental thrust and his grounding in drum & bass dynamics, it’s “7 Known Truths”. Landing at the midsection of the album, its role in the narrative is pronounced. For three minutes the track is suspended in amorphous stasis, just a bath of expressive sweeps, tones and delay tails circling in on each other. When a drop comes, it’s wholly unexpected, as though by rights a new track should have started. It’s steeped in film score suspense and progresses in a decidedly non-linear fashion, but the heft of the beat and the bass is unquestionably the product of Thompson’s own D&B legacy.
"On the album, you can hear there are lots of hisses and glitches and off-key edits. I just left them in there. Because, for me, it's a brushstroke, right?”
““7 Known Truths” was the straw that broke the camel's back in that project,” Thompson admits, “The first four or five tunes came really easy, but I kept coming back to “7 Known Truths” over and over again. That track is typical of my format for making this style of music I've been experimenting with. It was two or three parts, like, ‘Okay, these don't work, but I'm making them work.’ So I put them together, and it was like, ‘That's disturbing!’ When I listened back, it did everything I wanted it to.”
“What was exciting to me about the track, more than a lot of things, was the energy created with the drum pattern, because it was something completely new for me. I was using new techniques to give you this rhythm. It's white noise and gates rather than actual hi-hats, stuff like that. That was through experimenting, listening to lots of modular synthesiser stuff and trying to make sense of it all. And I just found something that really worked energetically.”
Crucially, even though The Edge Of Everything throws the doors open on Thompson’s musical possibilities and takes the Krust sound to some wild new places, fundamentally it is still a Krust record, logically attached to his winding discography and past achievements through a common musical DNA. Given the new sonic and compositional approaches, this DNA is more of an intrinsic feeling rather than any explicit tropes – a certain snarl in the bass, a ruthless economy in the punch of the drums. The limitations forced on Thompson and his peers in the early days of jungle instilled certain rules which carry through some 30 years later.
“I'm very aware it's easy to just hit record on the DAW and sample things for days,” he acknowledges. “While it's useful for jamming and sketching, it can also lead to complacency. If you don't have a good story, technology doesn't make it better. When the first wave of digital stuff came out, the whole thing became, ‘Cos it's there, you should use it’. Everyone was saying to compress and EQ your kick, but it didn’t necessarily sound better. I learned that if you never told anybody what you did, they'd say it was amazing, but if you showed them in the studio, they didn't believe you.”
“When I made “Warhead”, I never told anybody for years how I made that bass. And everyone was like, ‘Oh man, you must have used this synthesiser or that synthesiser.’ When I finally told everybody I just touched a wire and sampled the feedback sound, they're like, ‘What? I just spent 20,000 pounds on this setup to try and recreate that bassline!’”
Analogue ingenuity and happy accidents were a bedrock of jungle and drum & bass, and sampling was the arena in which the greatest feats of technological misuse were occurring. Thompson recalls the challenges faced in speeding up drum breaks to 170 bpm, at which point the sound thinned out and the impact was lost. For a time artists were layering up breaks to regain some weight, but the results were messy until they worked out dissecting the breaks and rebuilding them at the preferred speed. When computer-based production became a more viable option, sampling was among the many areas where limitations could be pushed much further and laborious processes sped up, but for the generation who had forged their sound doubling down on sampling time and finding a multitude of uses for a hi-hat, the new frontier presented something of an identity challenge.
“We’d just got good at whatever we were doing,” Thompson recalls. “The music sounded great, it sounded big, it sounded loud. And all of a sudden, we were faced with the convenience of digital and the opportunities it presented. It was enticing, so we all jumped on it, but it was definitely a learning curve. But now probably the last 10 years of music have been as much fun as when I started. I've found my sweet spot now. I figured out how to make the music sound the way I wanted it to. That was a big thing for me, trying to understand what my sound was in this new digital realm.”
Unsurprisingly for someone rooted in jungle, Thompson’s first experiments with Live were focused on sampling and time-stretching, moving warp markers and exploring sound design. But as a die-hard Pro Tools user, Live was more commonly positioned as a tool in his kit rather than a crucial step in his workflow. It was when completing work on The Portal / Concealing Treachery for 31 Records in 2018 he found himself unwittingly finishing an entire track arrangement in Live.
“I'm hardcore Pro Tools, right? And all of a sudden, I found myself finishing a track in [Live], and I was like, ‘Wow, that's quite easy, quite fun.’ Since then it's been my go-to sketch board, and it just feels fun to use. It doesn't feel like I'm trying to make tunes or do anything specific. And I like that, not really thinking about anything other than, ‘Just let me just grab these things here, see what that sounds like over there, throw them together and bounce.’”
The Edge Of Everything is the ultimate result of Thompson’s breakthroughs in hybridised analogue-digital production. While there may be tools like his Roland V-Synth which have remained a constant in his studio for a long time, the emphasis in his mind is less on specific sound sources and more on achieving the most fluid channel possible for his music to take shape. In pursuit of this latest iteration of Krust, Thompson has dialed back his critical mind to achieve that all-important flow, wherever it might take him.
“That's the whole thing about trying to create art,” he muses. “I don't know what it is until it's done. I know the direction I'm heading in, but I'm quite open to how I get there, and what the end result is going to be.”