[8 February 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If there’s one hip-hop act that’s absolutely, perfectly suited for Mike Patton’s great indie label Ipecac, it’s Dälek. Upon first listen to any Dälek album, there’s nothing subtle about the music whatsoever. The lyrics, recited in a clear, direct manner by the group’s namesake, are pointed and unflinching, part street poet, part visionary, part psychotic homeless sidewalk pontificator. The man is going to make himself heard, damnit, and nobody had better try and stop him, or there’ll be hell to pay. The music is equally hard-edged, but when it first kicks in, it couldn’t sound more harsh; boasting a sound that’s both bottom heavy and eardrum piercing, producers Still and Oktopus assemble a cacophonous pastiche that’s equal parts Throbbing Gristle, New Kingdom, and My Bloody Valentine, crating some of the scariest hip hop music to come out since Tricky’s masterful one-two punch of Maxinquaye and Pre-Millenium Tension. What starts off as sounding jarring and atonal, however, somehow seeps into your bloodstream, and takes on a strangely warm quality, the lugubrious, hypnotic beats resembling a sedate, steady heartbeat, the turntabling and basslines forming a warm, numbing wave of sound, and all the while, Dälek’s lyrics overwhelm you with their passion and poeticism. That’s the genius of this New Jersey trio, the music is so deceiving; it’s far from noise.
More then two years since the release of the acclaimed From Filthy Tongues of Gods and Griots, and coming on the heels of a highly praised collaboration with Faust, Dälek is back on their own with Absence, a beastly, roaring, hour-long excursion into a murky hip-hop/post rock underworld. If you though From Filthy Tongues of Gods and Griots and their debut release Negro, Necro, Nekros were on the extreme side, Absence takes things even further into the darkness.
In fact, much of the album is flat-out abrasive, moreso than anything Dälek has done before. This is sheer noise, the kind of stuff that would make Lou Reed proud. The backdrop Oktopus and Still create on this album are searing, but magnificently so. “Distorted Prose” contains a simple acoustic bass sample, as each line by Dälek is punctuated by screeches of feedback and industrial noise, sounding like an unholy collaboration between Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen. A similar jazz-tinged bassline anchors “Asylum (Permanent Underclass)”, but here the drones of noise are more enveloping, as Still displays his scratching prowess. “Culture For Dollars” is opened by exceedingly loud buzzsaw-like screeches before a sinister, dissonant melody underscores the vocals, while “In Midst of Struggle” reaches dizzying heights of layered distortion. All the while, monstrous, massive beats lurch across the sonic landscape, never wavering from the same midtempo pace. The musical interludes on the album are especially interesting, as “Absence” and “Köner” sound derived from the more ambient work by Krautrock masters Can (think “Aumgn”, but on a much smaller scale).
While you’re trying to get settled amidst the noise, it’s the lyrical skill of Dälek that draws you in, and on Absence, though his themes border on redundant as the album goes on, he’s always engaging. Possessing a directness in delivery and in rhyme that bears a strong similarity to Chuck D, KRS-1, and Saul Williams, Dälek’s sermonizing is often enthralling. “This troubling advance of half-assed crews crowd these streets,” he says, looking around him, as he laments the current state of hip-hop today, musing, “Anger expressed outwardly/ Causes ranks to break amongst these frail MCs.” America and the Bush Administration is lambasted, as Dälek touches on the moment when the seeds of the Republican campaign of fear were sown (“It all reverts to Reagan”), the effect of the war in Iraq on the lower classes (“This Christian Jihad will bleed the poor man”), and the President’s lack of willingness to keep the Church and State separate (“Beliefs and ideas can’t stand congruent/ Morality myths kept the common mind ruined”).
Dälek’s words are almost often angry, but every so often you great little poetic nuggets that display both perception and sensitivity (“Coming storm here to stay/ They turned the noon sky heron gray”). “Eyes to Form Shadows” features his most powerful rhyming, climaxing in a verse that references 9-11: “That pathetic premise of freedom is false/ Futility of earthly flesh answers death’s solemn call/ Within these very words lie my ancestral tongue/ I kept breath within collapsed left lung/ As I witnessed modern tower of Babel come undone/ These bloodshot eyes surmise that most meaning is lost.”
Words and music come together in awesome fashion on the climactic “Ever Somber”, Still and Oktopus’s backing track greatly resembling the swirling, layered, dense majesty of My Bloody Valentine. A brief glimpse of sunlight amidst the gray, it’s oddly uplifting, gorgeous even, as Dälek’s imagery taking on a powerful quality, his all-encompassing rant packing the album’s most visceral wallop. “People lose patience with words that sound vacant,” he days at one point. Absence is another bold step for one of hip-hop’s most inventive acts, and it’s immediacy, anger, and grotesque beauty will not be lost to anyone who hears it.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dalek-absence/