I pride myself on never wearing earplugs. And so, the warnings I’ve gotten since my early teen years, when I started going to see to feedbacking hardcore acts, have fallen on increasingly deaf ears. It might seem absurdly fatalistic, but any diehard smoker will understand the pleasure of choosing your own demise.
8 Feb 2005: Sin-E New York
Everyone has his or her limits though, and Dälek hit me like an unfiltered Lucky Strike. Halfway through the set I found myself leaning over the bar to buy a package of the little foam cylinders I had so long spurned.
Dälek’s producers, Still and Oktopus, layer their tracks with booming, fuzzy (not in a nice way) bass and hissing white noise. At low volumes this could be as peaceful as rainfall but at high levels the sound is as overwhelming as Niagara (from the well of the surge). Seeing the group live qualifies as an extreme night out and, as much as I may have enjoyed the sheer physical effect, I can’t say for certain that I’d subject myself to another round. The volume may be impressive, but the punch of the midtempo bass drum weakens after an hour of pounding.
The group’s frontman and only vocalist, who goes by the name Dälek, is often held up as the group’s greatest strength for his issue-conscious lyrics and flow that ranks among the best. Listening to their new album, Absence, I might be inclined to agree, but live his voice got lost in the mix, just another percussive element overshadowed by Still’s inventive scratching.
In a recent interview, the rapper spoke highly of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. He admired the way the vocals were so low in the mix as to be almost indecipherable and said that, to some extent, he tried to mimic the effect in his work. Such aesthetics seem at odds with any effort to spread his opinions on current events. The heavy-hitting sounds that surround Dälek render his lyrics about as relevant as the plot in a kung fu movie.
But for all the punches Dälek’s music delivers, their live performance is simply static. Dälek barely shifted his position at the center of the stage, and Still and Oktopus merely bobbed their heads as they fiddled with tables full of equipment. Only briefly did their performance have any visuals - at one point Still used his mouth to manipulate the needle of his record player.
Most popular rappers indulge in party antics. Busta Rhymes can happily pour Courvoisier onto dancing and grinding fans without his conscience suffering. For issue-conscious rap artists such as Dälek, who scoff at popular rap’s focus on decadence, there just isn’t a clear alternative. So they are left only to show off how heavy and how loud their beats can get. This is as over-hyped a display of power as any number of spliffs that Snoop Dogg might light up.
Like some of the group’s labelmates on Ipecac, bands that more often walk the line between heavy metal and hardcore punk, most of the melodies or tunes are elusive, high-pitched frequencies. Sometimes, it’s not even clear if the sounds are part of the music or secondary harmonies caused by the onset of tinnitus.
Thanks to an irregular package (what sort of diabolical company puts only three earplugs in each bag?) my friend claimed two and I only got one. So with my left ear was able to pick out, unfiltered, the full brunt of Oktopus’ and Still’s samples. They often take the siren-blare of Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke” to the nth degree, or slip in chimes that are equal parts Portishead and the bell telling you a car door is open.
Catchy? Not quite. But I have to admit that those tunes continued to echo through my cranium long after I wandered out onto the streets. At least, I hope they’re the tunes. Do you know the one that goes “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE” and then “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII”? Does that sound familiar? Hm?
Wait, what was that? Did you say something?