The happening that was cLOUDDEAD’s millennial Mush Records output had both positive and negative effects for experimental hip-hop in the subsequent years. On one hand, the six EPs/movements (eventually collected and released as a self-titled LP) became the Rosetta Stone of this brand of outsider music. However, the album was so ideal a mix of the weird, seemingly incongruent whims of its creators that to this day it plays like a prophecy simultaneously spoken, challenged and fulfilled. Not even the group’s members (Doseone, Why? and Odd Nosdam) could properly follow it up after preparing the way. They called it a day after the next LP, forming the anticon. collective and moving on to other exciting work, but nothing as singular as their debut. With Behind Every Mask, Mush artist Sleeper steps into this tradition that can be followed but probably never improved upon. Sleeper’s work offers a comfortable kinship to other key avanthop artists, in that he does not try to reinvent the form, nor does he too obviously try to adhere to it. This album moves his sound away from a Dr. Sample approach and uses live recording and circuit-bent instruments.
Unlike the voluble cLOUDDEAD, rapping cannot be found anywhere on Behind Every Mask, so the effect seems somewhat similar to the instrumental versions of the early cLOUDDEAD material (otherwise known as Collaged at Mom’s). Behind Every Mask is also beefier and has a wider dynamic range. The fundamental elements of these songs are percussion (alternately dense and glitchy), samples of spoken dialogue and synth lines that float in and out of the mix and up and down the scale. Sleeper combines these elements into layered soundscapes and comes up with some distinctive configurations. The problem, however, is he often suppresses the most-appealing individual component of a song in favor of something lesser. For instance, “9th Grade” starts out with a partially distorted, almost-mournful drone akin to Basinski, but once the resolute drums kick in, the listener’s attention shifts. The change of the rhythm to half-time feel, to double-time feel, etc. is somewhat dynamic, but everything going on underneath the inescapable percussion sounds much more satisfying. Although the willful drums disappear for the striking outro, they have already marred an otherwise (atmospherically) successful number. “B.F.U.” suffers from exactly the same issue. A mediocre beat occupies way too much space within the mix and hijacks almost the entire song. When the beat drops out for the last minute, the mesmerizing lo-fi qualities come to the fore.
The best material on the album departs from exactitude. Sleeper isn’t an unoriginal beatmaker, but he is perhaps too often conservative in his approach. The album benefits when he loosens up and explores sonic and compositional contrasts. On “And You”, he crosses into Psyence Fiction territory, merging fried-melody lines with a syncopated rhythm to create an effective hybrid. “White Sky” also achieves this level of interplay and makes strong use of a somber-choral line. The section of the album that begins with “Mr. Megatron” and ends with “Nothing New” works splendidly. This five-song run—less deliberate and more open to mistakism and decay—represents the best use of bent instruments. “Condition or Effect” starts with a sampled bit of dialogue decrying the drum machine and the rest of the song plays out like a sonic battle in which the drums duke it out with digital scrapes and sirens. The reflexive dialogue in “Faulty” (think Peter L. Batsin) describes a “mysterious- looking box with a lot of colored buttons and switches and lights” as a means of introducing a nervous bunch of electronic hiccups that develop into a deep groove. And “Nothing New” is the catchiest track here—a collage of micro-hooks that connect and collide over a beat that seems to incorporate an inverted attack, taking a few bars off and coming back in for what one could call an extended chorus.
Behind Every Mask is overlong, but it is frequently nimble enough to spin from beginning to end without becoming tedious. The album should hold a place on the late-night listening shelf alongside more polished work from anticon.‘s Alias or popular instrumental versions of stunners like The Unseen and Deltron 3030. Of course, the inescapable shadow of cLOUDDEAD looms, but Sleeper does that album (and its impact) no disservice here. If anything, he seems to be gaining in confidence and picking up improved techniques with each release. Behind Every Mask might someday be viewed as the album on which he found his muse and bent her out of shape in order to forge a path to his own “wow” moment in experimental hip-hop.