DJ Spooky has to have the least apposite nickname of all time, as anyone who’s read his liner notes will probably agree. Able to witter on at annoyingly pretentious length about anything to do with his music composition and the postmodernist theorizing behind it (John Cageist freeform poetry ahoy!), Paul D. Miller has actually had the hubris to quote himself whilst spelling out for the reader in intellectual detail just how clever he is. I’m That Subliminal Kid, shouting lengthily at you about me. Hmmm. But then he did choose to append the nickname himself.
Mockery aside, Spooky stalks the dark, experimental terrain where jazz fuses with hip-hop and electronic music with hunger and skill enough to warrant his occasional lapses into stoned smugness. Acting as turntablist / beat machine for Matthew Shipp’s improv hit squad The Blue Series Continuum, he’s put out two albums at their helm (Optometry and Dubtometry), and last year released Celestial Mechanix, a hack’n'slash greatest hits journey through most of Thirsty Ear’s output, traversing grooves with noirish flair.
Being exceedingly well connected never hurt anyone trying to scratch the itch of experimentation, a maxim to which this album readily attests. Drums of Death is a collaboration between Miller and Slayer’s drummer, Dave Lombardo, which also features Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid (fresh from his recent, disappointing Thirsty Ear collaboration with that other noted illbient jazz monstro, DJ Logic), Gerry Nestler on guitar, Jack Dangers on bass and a single appearance by Dälek’s MC (called, er, Dälek) on the bleakly hypnotic tirade “Assisted Suicide”. For hip-hop fans, though, the real coup is the presence of Public Enemy voice and social activist Chuck D, who appears on no less than three charging remakes of PE material: “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out”, “B-Side Wins Again” and a stripped-back “Public Enemy #1” that should scour out any lingering traces of the track’s Puff Daddy infestation.
Given the Bomb Squad’s multi-layered guitar-squall take on beats and Chuck D’s own anti-dystopian sermonizing, his presence on the record makes sense twice over—and of course it’s just good to hear that voice back where it belongs—besting a tumult, instead of quietly and firmly commanding conventions. Supposedly set in some mechanized intergalactic future, the instrumental tracks shift from jazzier explorations of tempo and texture on compositions like “Metatron” and “Obscure Disorder”, through brief moody interludes (“Universal Time Signature”, “Sounds from Planet X”, “Particle Storm”), straight-up beats / FX vs. drumming dueling on “Incipit Zarathrustra”—yig, how could they call it that—unnervingly detuned, drifting dub reggae on “A Darker Shade Of Bleak” and on to the laser-guided speed metal of “Kultur Krieg” and “Terra Nullius” (subtitled “Cyborg Rebellion on Colony Planet 15”). A lot of ground is covered, then, albeit from firmly within a metal macho-fantasy / sci-fi-mythology-geekery mindstate.
As an experiment in the bonding and boundaries of metal guitar playing and drumming with subtler, slower musical forms, Drums of Death is an unmitigated success due to the considered, multi-faceted way in which they are deployed on different tracks. Nestler and Reid supply bludgeoning riffs and teeth-shredding power chords as well as crepuscular veils of tone by way of ambience, and Lombardo’s manic yet terrifically-controlled drumming lives up to his band’s fearsome reputation, going from heaviest of funk breaks on “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” through the frantic onslaught of the more overtly-metal tracks, to King Crimson-esque percussion flurries on beatless tracks where his precision mocks any jazz snobbery. Miller himself is as usual an integral-yet-understated part of the proceedings, opening up track progression without seeming to dictate anything. His scratching and beatwork as always clinical, he was aided in production duty this time ‘round by respected electro head Meat Beat Manifesto (AKA Jack Dangers), who also figured quite prominently on Celestial Mechanix.
As an album, Drums of Death suffers from the contrast in energy levels between the metal rushes, the MC-driven hip-hop and the abstract jazzier digressions, and your enjoyment of certain portions will depend on your personal “this is interesting exploration / this is tedious aimless onanism” meter when it comes to percussive / scratched interplay. On balance, this meeting of two different kinds of sonic energy crackles and glistens with enough physical force to overrun the sterility of some of its intellectual results. Plus, they’ve got the “non-stop rhythm-rock poetry player” on board, “kicking like Bruce Lee’s Chinese connection”. Hells yeah, bitch!
Incidentally, listening to this album whilst reading Warren Ellis’ Global Frequency graphic novels makes for an explosively synaesthetic experience. Recommended.