One of the most common, and highly frustrating, refrains uttered by narrow-minded rock fans (and there are plenty of them out there) when asked why they don’t like to listen to hip-hop is, “It all sounds the same, and no one ever does anything exciting with the sound.” Of course, you and I know that’s a complete misnomer, and the more you delve into the world of underground hip-hop, the more surprises many artists have in store for us. Part of the ambitious Anticon collective, Oakland, California’s Themselves features two of Anticon’s most prolific members, in gifted MC Doseone, who delivers challenging, often abstract lyrics with a distinctive, highly recognizable nasal delivery, and innovative producer Jel, whose beats have dared to attempt to redefine modern hip-hop, not only serving as a backdrop to Doseone’s work, but just as importantly, daring listeners to redefine what they consider hip-hop music to be.
The Notwist, on the other hand, are far less controversial, but they’ve attracted just as much attention in the indie music community as Themselves have in hip-hop circles. After an innocuous beginning as a mildly enjoyable Sonic Youth/Dinosaur Jr. knock-off during the early 1990s, the German quartet have gone on to turn pop music on its ear, creating highly accessible “glitch pop” during the last eight years, highlighted by 1998’s gorgeous Shrink and 2003’s near-masterpiece Neon Golden. Fronted by twins Markus and Micha Acher, and featuring the electronic talents of Martin “Console” Gretschmann, The Notwist’s incorporation of clicking, stuttering IDM beats pre-dates Radiohead’s own epochal Kid A.
The pairing of Themselves’ esoteric hip hop with The Notwist’s lovely, thrumming tones might not attract the same attention as other attempts at melding hip hop with other genres, but fans of both acts are fully aware that the project, dubbed 13 & God, has the potential to be something very exciting. Both bands toured together in early 2004, often jamming onstage during The Notwist’s headlining set, and the two seemingly disparate-sounding bands formed a friendship, one that resulted in a collaboration of trans-Atlantic proportions, yielding an album that, while not quite the innovative, electrifying record many had hoped it would be, is still endlessly fascinating, sounding both accessible and avant-garde at the same time.
Neither side are unfamiliar with collaborations; Doseone, Jel, and keyboardist Dax have all had experience in such side projects as cLOUDDEAD and Subtle, among others, while The Notwist has stretched their musical boundaries on albums by Lali Puna and Village of Savoonga (plus, let us not forget Gretschmann’s work as Console), and 13 & God has both acts meshing their sounds comfortably.
“Perfect Speed”, sung by Acher, is bolstered by Jel’s forceful beats, as Krautrock and hip-hop collide in a growing crescendo, while the track that immediately follows, “Afterclap”, is a surprisingly pastoral sounding composition, with gentle twitters, whistles, and subtle scratching, sounding more subdued than some might have expected from Themselves, and more folktronic that The Notwist have ever sounded before. You can sense Gretschmann’s involvement on the lengthy “Superman on Ice”, as glitch beats zip across the sonic landscape with a hummingbird’s quickness, as Doseone launches into an extended monologue, serving up such memorable imagery as, “You have the desperate fair to your eyes/The look of a child who has just swallowed a coin or army man.” Doseone’s finest moment on the album is on the terrific “Soft Atlas”, a musically sparse track, featuring piano notes that act more like a percussion instrument than a source of melody; Dose dares to wax philosophic, but instead of spewing stoner poetry, he pulls it off effectively, culminating in the repeated concluding verse, “Without a universal law there is no gravity/ Without a gravity there is no atmosphere/ Without an atmosphere there is no chance at life/ And with no chance at life… I don’t exist.”
As it happens, though, one of the album’s most instantly memorable tracks is the one that sounds like less of a collaboration than any of the others. “Men of Station” continues where Neon Golden left off, carried by a lilting keyboard melody ambient synths, and gently insistent electro beats, as Markus Acher’s unique phrasing adds an endearing touch to his repeated, enigmatic mantra of, “We are men of station/ We are troubled and just the same/ But we’re not as hell as you.” It’s first-rate Notwist material, but nowhere near as adventurous as the rest of the album, and consequently, would have been better of saved for the next Notwist album.
Out of the album’s ten tracks, only does the opening track “Low Heaven” sound awkward, as Dose’s vocal harmonizing tends to wear thin, but after that brief, erm, glitch, it’s smooth sailing from then on, 13 & God coming to an understated climax with the adventurous sonic pastiche “Walk”. It’s an album that requires patience from both hip-hop devotees and IDM enthusiasts, but once it’s allowed to grow on the listener, its own distinct beauty begins to surface with each subsequent listen. This is the kind of one-off collaboration that will have fans hoping for a follow-up, because you get the feeling these highly talented musicians have barely scratched the surface.