City Paper is not for tourists
Yeah, the usual hiphop classifications don’t really apply to Dälek. And the seemingly convenient ones fit even more poorly. “Indie” is way too generic for a group with such grand musical ambitions, and “underground” might imply that the Newark, N.J., trio has everything in common with the quasi-intellectual, noncommercial brotherhood that claims domain over hiphop’s philosophical core. Sure, both words are factually accurate: Dälek does record for an independent label, and its mass-market appeal is pretty much nil. But aligning the group with any broad movement feels like a cop-out.
If anything, rapper Dälek, turntablist Still, and producer Oktopus operate as outsiders. Their love for hiphop is obvious, yet their music exists in a zone all its own, where krautrock, industrial, and shoegaze are emulated as much as Public Enemy or the Last Poets. The apocalyptic sonics, big beats, and aggravated rhymes are breathtaking at times. But like most outsider artists, the trio tends to hit only a couple of nerves—and hit them hard. On the new Absence, Dälek’s third LP, the approach is in its prime—so much so that it makes you wonder if anything different could possibly come next.
At first, the record seems as if it’s going to be an MC’s paradise. Dälek the rapper opens with an a cappella black-power invocation, delivering his syllables with typical preacher-man urgency: “Bleak circumstance led masses to only wanna dance/A bastard child of Reaganomics posed in a B-boy stance/Makes our leaders play minstrel left with nuthin’ to lead our people/How the fuck I’m-a shake your hand when we’ve never been seen as equal?” A stand-up bass sample kicks in (think The Low End Theory) and he continues the thought: “Deemed evil by those housed in church steeples/False prophets read backwards from broken tablets to the feeble/I seen you.” Then all hell breaks loose, with Oktopus and Still unleashing a wave of feedback, part jet-engine screech, part symphony-orchestra tune-up. Wait—make that mostly jet-engine screech. Even by Dä standards—see 1998’s Negro, Necro, Nekros and 2002’s From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots, which both featured similar blasts—it’s colossal.
After that track—titled, appropriately, “Distorted Prose”—the rapping on the disc usually seems secondary. The words that come from Dälek’s mouth act almost like a bass line, dancing around the beat, becoming just another instrument. His choruses do tend to be memorable, however, even if they continually return to the theme of hiphop’s lost innocence: “Who trades this culture for dollars/The fool or the scholar/Griot, poet, or white collar?” he asks on, yes, “Culture for Dollars.” The song’s distorted guitar thunder and hypnotic rhythm rule the moment, though, offering few reminders that nostalgia is part of the aesthetic.
Ditto for “Asylum (Permanent Underclass),” “A Beast Caged,” and “In Midst of Struggle.” The operative comparison is My Bloody Valentine, which always seemed ripe for a hiphop treatment—after all, the iconic ’gazer outfit basically worked with loud ’n’ looped production. And Absence, as reverent as it is to the sacred text of Public Enemy, is definitely a disc that explores every possibility of the MBV mode of soundscaping. “Ever Somber” even goes all glide guitars and twinkly melodies, making the connection explicit. The only song with a new kind of oomph is “Eyes to Form Shadows,” which trades the usual fighter-plane howl for something more akin to the aural chaos of a subway platform. The breakbeat is more Eric B. than Bomb Squad, but the rap still seems drowned out by whoosh.
There are two instrumentals—the ghostly and abstract “Absence” and the meditative “Köner”—that prove that Dälek is willing to ditch the basic beats/rhymes/life template in the name of artistic progress. Either number would fit in fine on a hipster-baiting collection of ambient Eurotronica. But it’s telling that the group chose not to add verbals to these tracks. Maybe they’re good enough without a rapper’s touch. Or maybe they’re signs that Dälek the MC knows he’s fit for only one kind of sonic surroundings.
Or maybe they’re the beginning of his planned obsolescence. In Dälek’s world, it’s not hiphop that killed the rapper, but the primacy of noise and the breadth of what it can communicate. He’d probably prefer to be martyred by an artistic concept instead of a pop trend, anyway. A tougher guess is whether Absence really will lead to a state of grace.
Big beats and distortion are at the heart of the Octopus Project’s One Ten Hundred Thousand Million, but the Austin, Texas, trio has the luxury of recording without a vocalist. “None of us have sung, and it never really came up,” member Josh Lambert told the Austin American-Statesman a couple of years back. The human touch instead comes from the little things—if this be postrock, it certainly ain’t postpeople.
The band’s 2002 debut, Identification Parade, was definitely Tortoisey in its outlook: Songs emerged tentatively from electronic beats, turning largely into guitarless motifs. Drums dropped in for brief bouts of rockist power, but it all generally had the feel of music that was crafted and composed. Now, postrock isn’t exactly gut music, but on Million, the sounds are definitely targeted more at the torso: “Exit Counselor” and “All of the Champs That Ever Lived” throb with bona fide breakbeats, and “The Adjustor” builds woofer-busting noise around a solid indie-rock guitar riff.
Elsewhere, the emphasis is on efficient forward motion, with “Music Is Happiness” forcing Sonic Youth–style buzz to coexist with a double-time drum-machine beat, and “Tuxedo Hat” matching a free-floating guitar melody to a snappy, almost martial time signature. “Six Feet Up,” by contrast, is a first-class freakout that combines junk-heap percussion with some giant, Led Zeppelin–worthy riffage. But epic feel and all, the track never loses its sense of humanity. This is music that rarely gets the better of its makers, despite the technology obviously at play.
There is indeed glitchwork and computerized rehashing throughout Million—and it produces at least one transcendent moment. “Malaria Codes” opens with pastoral hums and blips, maybe evoking one of those rooms in the Zelda video games where things are at peace for the moment. But the cartoony vibe is soon broken by the plucking of stringed instruments and the crash and splash of an overmiked drum kit. Then come the horns, offering a balance of optimism and bluesy comfort. The song fades out to the sound of birds twittering and a car driving away. If it’s not the most abstract thing you’ve ever heard, so what? Sometimes it’s OK just to have a good day.
Maybe that’s what’s most refreshing about the disc as a whole: Whereas most postrockers seem to be trapped in a realm of coldhearted sonic design and left-brain one-upmanship, the Octopus Project makes noise that aims to connect instead of perplex. It’s not a revolutionary concept—but it’s a nice one to keep in mind when working in a genre that sometimes seems to exist only for itself.CP