[28 January 2009]
The hip-hop heads who follow the genre as closely as high rollers watch a horse race might have other ideas, but for my money Dälek (pronounced “DYE-a-leck”) was responsible for the best—and most depressing—rap song of 2007. Over 10 minutes in length, the title track from Abandoned Language channeled a world of depravity in the muted wail comprising half of the song’s melody, looped and sustained into oblivion. What begins as “typical” hip-hop fare sprawls upward and outward as bricks pile atop others and the instruments steadily crush everything beneath them, but not before Okt0pus and Dälek (the MC after whom the duo is named) have their way with words. Amidst their scary, surrealistic street poetry, delivered in a low bark burning with steely resentment, one very direct line stands out: “Six-hundred years, ain’t a fucking thing different.” And then, just as this thought is allowed to sink in, the raps fragment and dissolve and the music picks up their slack, conveying in sounds what Dälek and Okt0pus cannot express in language.
Taking the song’s trademark aphorism absolutely literally is missing the point. Of course society has progressed since the Middle Ages, but as for us as human beings, well, the story isn’t quite as flattering, is it? We’ve gathered from historical accounts, art, and literature that the roots of humankind grew from seeds of violence and vilification, neither of which has ever really gone away—only changed form. People still kill people. There’s still a palpable discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. Narcissism powers the engines that drive many of us to our goals. Dälek have treated these judgments as mere observations in their decade-long career, throughout which they appeared to have only become angrier and more focused, as well as more lyrically concrete: who has time for alliteration when someone’s just been murdered on the corner of the block? The ingeniousness of the Dälek project, however, lies and may always lie in the overwhelming sheets of sound that throw the two staples of hip-hop (beats and rhymes) into the back seat when they’re simply not powerful enough to send the message. Stuffed with noise, mutilated by pedals and after-effects, and layered with instrumental drones both tempered and insane, the music is a poignant retranslation of their worldviews and a hell of a statement in itself—one that describes the gangs of Dälek’s home state of New Jersey as much as it does the ugly primordial soup out of which we arose well over 600 years ago.
This sort of racket that Dälek deals in has led the lazy among us to label the group as “alternative” and stop there, without plumbing the possibilities of what they’re ultimately trying to do. By now it’s well known that they’ve toured with Isis, collaborated with Faust, and share more sonic signifiers with the Melvins than Madvillain. They’re also experimental in a real sense, fiddling with recording techniques and setting their sights on a different aesthetic each time out; they conceptualized Absence as “the book” on extremity, Abandoned Language tried ambience on for size, and so on. Even more than experimentation, however, Dälek have been all about the continual exploration and perfection of a single idea: that even within a decidedly hip-hop framework, music can speak volumes when words feel inadequate. And Gutter Tactics, their fifth album proper, provides perhaps the clearest expression of their intentions yet.
Louder, viler, and grittier than its predecessor, Gutter Tactics grew out of recording sessions played by the Deadverse Massive, a shadowy collective of noise artists closely affiliated with the duo. As the musicians whaled on their instruments, Okt0pus and Dälek modified their sounds in real time, ostensibly as a way to excise all the audible humanity from them. Indeed, the backgrounds don’t give the impression that they were played by humans, but rather occurred naturally, spewed forth from a hole in the earth or dropped from flying aircraft. After the infamous Reverend Wright gives an incendiary speech condemning Americans’ role in terrorism during “Blessed Are They Who Bash Your Children’s Head Against a Rock”, “No Question” continues the onslaught with a muck-laden diatribe whose drums stomp threateningly beneath the noise of a thousand melting pianos. The even uglier “Armed with Krylon” trades the pianos in for an army of motorcycles splattering Black Sabbath-begotten sludge onto an extraterrestrial hip-hop beat, the way Paik might sound had they been produced by Dan the Automator. El-P is really the only contemporary hip-hop artist working in the same arena, but Dälek deliberately eschew El’s swiftness for the “heavy” that they seemed to have kept in their crosshairs since Gutter Tactics’ inception. Nowhere is this truer than the eight-minute “Who Medgar Evers Was…”, a trudge through a swamp with concrete boots that dares you to complete it.
It’s a remarkably exhausting listen from end to end. The raps are stylistically pedestrian and the beats rarely deviate from a leaden 4/4 thud, but this often works in Dälek’s favor, since it allows ample latitude for the music to get pushed to front and center. One notable exception to the norm is “Los Macheteros / Spear of a Nation”, whose beats consist almost entirely of shotgun blasts. From M.I.A.‘s “Paper Planes” to Terror Danjah’s “Cock Back V1.2”, the purpose of gunshots-as-beats has primarily been to rally and galvanize, but the ones here are uncommonly defeatist. In another context their rhythm could’ve been reggaeton, but they’ve been stretched and slowed into un-danceability, and as the track progresses the sad, sad melody continues to engulf them until the music and the shots’ echoes become virtually indistinguishable. The verses, too, get bulldozed into the back of the mix, and while it’s often difficult to understand them, they’re clearly stewing with pent-up rage and seem to be escalating toward something enormous. The duo’s alarming poeticism—heard more sharply on Abandoned Language—is missed, but underneath the music’s thick substances the tone of Dälek’s lyrics (both attitudinal and timbral) makes perfect sense.
If this approach sounds suspiciously like shoegaze, it may be vindicating to know that My Bloody Valentine has remained a spiritual influence on the group, and that Loveless is a perennial favorite of Dälek the MC. (In a 2005 interview with Pitchfork he called it “one of the most beautiful records I’ve ever heard”.) Strange to imagine that the paths of the transcendently gorgeous MBV and the generally repellant Dälek should cross, though there are moments—“We Lost Sight” and “A Collection of Miserable Thoughts Laced with Wit” among them—when the line between ugliness and beauty on Gutter Tactics becomes extraordinarily thin. The strongest link between the two acts, however, bypasses the level of sound into the realm of philosophy. If shoegaze is all about surrendering blissfully to the elements, then Gutter Tactics turns this experience right on its head. Okt0pus can barely get through two verses in the closer “Atypical Stereotype” before he malfunctions, becoming locked on the phrase “Truths stay intangible, they treat us like animals” and then giving way to the music’s chloroforming weight. It’s a singularly affecting instance in an album full of them, in which Dälek reluctantly, ambivalently, confusedly, and perhaps fearfully submit to forces they know are far greater than themselves.
The record’s crowning achievement may be how truthfully Dälek convey this ambivalence through music, and in so doing, capture the spirit of a world where tragedy looms overhead, where hate is scarily effective, and where the victim and the victimizer are often the same person. Whether these negative forces attack us from the outside or grip us from within, they’re too huge and amorphous to fight against on our own, and Dälek seem to realize it. Another line from “Abandoned Language” comes to mind here: “I say I’ll keep a pen to pad and fingers on triggers / Should I aim it on the temple or several? Can’t figure”. Gutter Tactics gets Dälek—and maybe us by proxy—no closer to answering this question, for as traumatic as these musical passages are to swallow, it’s unclear whether they signify a cocked weapon or a white flag. Yet this fully realized artistic expression of confusion is as deft a statement as we’re apt to get from a duo that’s been searching for years to discover the tortured voice in their voicelessness.