[21 February 2006]
After triple and quadruple-take glances at the cover of the promo for Prefuse 73’s new “mini-album” Security Screenings, an odd little quirk in the cover art becomes apparent. Look at it for a second and parse it, and it becomes obvious that something is awry—On this odd little coat of arms is fashioned the text “Prefuse LXIII”, which, when un-Roman-numeralized, translates to Prefuse 63. This particular error has been corrected for the public release of Security Screenings, but for some reason, my eyes keep returning to it.
What happened? Perhaps more importantly, was it intentional?
Security Screenings is the first album to follow Prefuse 73’s much-derided opus Surrounded by Silence, and it is as reactionary as ...Silence was overblown and devoid of mastermind Guillermo Scott Herren’s elusive personality. The third track on the album, cutely titled “Illiterate Interlude” points to Herren’s self-conscious acknowledgement of the general attitude toward Surrounded by Silence, making a joke of the criticism by seeking out the most brain-dead sample he could find of someone criticizing it. It’s not clear whether those 28 seconds are self-deprecating or confrontational toward an audience who largely spurned him, but either way, it’s clear that the critical failure of Herren’s previous album is on his mind.
As such, the most striking feature of Security Screenings is the absolute lack of MCs. Sure, there are a couple of guests along for the ride, but they’re mostly used to fill out Herren’s careening superball-in-a-rubber-room sonic compositions. Understandable words are few and far between, leaving only the noise to speak. In this, Herren does an admirable job, using cut-ups to create hip-hop beats the way few artists can, and never sticking with an idea for longer than it takes to be fully realized. The end result is often disorientation, but there’s a sickly sense of flow to go along with the disorientation—it’s very, very calculated vertigo, never allowing for complacency, but constantly begging to be heard.
This sense of measured discombobulation is most exemplified in tracks like “When the Grip Lets You Go” and the two versions of “With Dirt and Two Texts”. “When the Grip Lets You Go” is all washes of noise and random shifts until the beat shows up, at which point new rhythms and melodies are created out of that noise, which then transitions into more, different noise, which of course transitions again into beats that use the noise—all of it amounts to a neat trick in aural morphing that keeps the listener off-balance but intrigued. “With Dirt and Two Texts” is similar, except that it establishes its groove and sticks with it, creating its own sense of vertigo by creating melodies out of myriad completely different sounds place right next to one another.
Herren even does well when he’s playing it a little safer, as the lovely “Always It’s Gonna Be Like That” demonstrates, itself a beatless experiment in backward masking that’s far too pretty to be as short (just over a minute long) as it is. Later in the album is “Matrimonioids…”, a song that actually holds onto its fairly traditional hip-hop beat for the better part of three minutes, adding layers of beauty via dissonant (but still melodic) washes of sound that fade in one ear and out the other. It’s really quite beautiful—what it’s doing on an album like this is a mystery.
But then, it would seem that anything goes on Surrounded by Silence, a work whose only overriding theme is that there is none. It’s absorbing and fascinating, but for as much as it would seem to be the polar opposite of Surrounded by Silence, it actually suffers from a remarkably similar affliction, that being that we, as listeners, are offered no insight into what Herren is trying to say. This, then, brings me again to that cover. Is “Prefuse 63” the sound of Herren being taken down ten notches by the critical community? Is it an acknowledgement that Security Screenings isn’t exactly a Prefuse 73 album, as Herren and his promotional materials carefully and constantly point out that it’s not the proper follow-up to Surrounded by Silence? Or was it just an honest mistake by an artist that’s too wrapped up in what he’s doing and what everyone else thinks of it to notice details like errant Roman numerals?
Truth is, I’ve probably thought about this too much, and that last case is true. Still, if Herren keeps up with the persona he has now cultivated, we may never know the answer for sure.