Meat Beat Manifesto’s brainchild, Jack Dangers, has said of his new material on Autoimmune that he feels “closest” amongst his sonic peers to those in the dubstep scene. Cynical ears might attribute Dangers’s remarks to a half-hearted guerilla marketing campaign by a has-been hipster trying to make his rusty wires relevant to disintegrating audiences. This, however, reflects a poor sense of history.
Dangers has for years been a mystic figure lurking around in the nursery at the genesis of myriad electronic fashions and fancies. His early solo work, in print for the first time in 20 years as last year’s Archive Things: 1982-1988, sounds like something that could be debuting at this year’s No Fun Festival. Pre-Meat band Perennial Divide was one of the loudest bands of its time, and an early fusioneer of squeal and dance beats. Meat Beat Manifesto’s first album, Storm the Studio, established the outfit as an uncompromising force of sampledelic sound collage (the title comes from a William S. Burroughs snippet), borrowing ideas liberally from hip-hop, which was still shunned in those days, even in the rockist college scene. And though they came to be defined by hip-hop, and later, dub, Meat Beat Manifesto never exceeded its welcome within the genre limits and began to evolve outwardly to both anticipate and develop the margins of EBM, drum n’ bass, trip-hop, big beat, illbient, ambient, and even mashups through Dangers’s production work for Emergency Broadcast Network. I’d even go so far as to call Subliminal Sandwich an early hauntological masterwork.
Yet, as far out as Meat Beat Manifesto’s sound reached, it maintained commonalities (subterranean bass, funky breaks, atomic age samples) that got the band incongruously pegged as trend hoppers who kept making the same album.
True to form, Autoimmune stays the same by being different. The samples are present, but sparse and redistributed in a way that almost makes them feel obsolete. Past Manifestoes have weltered in a kitsch aural collision of various pasts, but many of Autoimmune‘s more exciting moments come from its embrace of modernism, like its dubsteppers (“Lonely Soldier”, “Guns N Lovers”). The signature subsonic bass remains on these and other tracks, the same one that inspired rumors that the band once hit the brown note at an early gig, but the bass’s biophysical targets are here geared more towards rumble pack shocks of the gut rather than ass-shaking vibrations inspired to move the legs on up. It’s perhaps Meat Beat Manifesto’s first ghettoblaster, riddim and bruise for an car ride across the new industrial landscape. Years after the days of industrial music, the new sounds of kling klang are the pin drops in isolated and condemned factories, the moans of urban ghettos, and the robotic arms of tighteningly regimented power structures.
“Hellfire” skitter-beats across a dubscape of short-wave radio squeals and hiccupping voices from the real emergency broadcast network (“this is only a test”), with the addition of minimalist high-pitched Mellotron notes making for a maddeningly incessant and dark journey. “Less” and “62 Dub” achieve similar ends with little to no melody. Warped effects and grinding echodrones guide the way through these songs and highlight Dangers’s brilliance as a producer who works with a meticulous layer-cake methodology. Each of these tracks, much like the best of dubstep, contains a fungal aura of inertia creeps that harnesses threat and terror without ever going in for an attack. When several voices appear from the ether to simply repeat the word “nothing” in “Less”, as if the song was spiraling downward until it reached oblivion, the antagonistic nihilism, especially in one particular vocoded robot who sings the word “nuuuh-thing” in a mocking tone, leaves an unmistakable chill rolling down one’s back.
Dangers has been particularly prolific these past few years, releasing a dub re-interpretation of RUOK?, musique concrète work for Important Records, and even a jazz album with Thirsty Ear. Along with Autoimmune, these experiments finally make Meat Beat Manifesto sound like an adventurous band trying out new things rather than making the most Meat Beat Manifesto interpretation of varying styles.
That makes Autoimmune‘s failures more acutely upsetting. Opener “International” is a minute and 40 seconds long, goes nowhere beyond a mere introduction, and feels like the MBM business card. It has the token global radio sign-ons, a stale familiar break, and some sampled brass hits that fall totally out of step with the rest of the album. Worse, the track returns in “reprise” form at album’s end to function as opening and closing credits. Dangers would have done fine to jump right in with the frantic reggaeton of “I Hold the Mic”, which bears some resemblance to Subliminal Sandwich‘s “Nuclear Bomb” (both feature Daddy Sandy on vocals), though not nearly as apocalyptic as that track or the next few that follow on Autoiummune.
While “I Hold the Mic” succeeds by being derivative of a style perfected by Meat Beat Manifesto years ago that happened to be ahead of its time (making it quite relevant now), “Spanish Vocoder” just feels like a tired retread. Repeating the bleeps and bloops of legendary Meat Beat Manifesto songs like “It’s the Music” is not necessarily a bad thing, but “Spanish Vocoder” is tame and tepid, which cuts against the profusion of dense architecture elsewhere in this collection.
“Young Cassius”, featuring the San Francisco MC Azeem rapping atop substandard Meat Beat Manifesto fare, is a pure hip-hop track whose backing music essentially amounts to a canny breakbeat and some flimsy deep bass curdles. It’s not the only venture back to hip-hop though. “Solid Waste” revives the monotone, almost slam poetry-esque Dangers rap featured on so many early Meat Beat recordings. The tactic has aged pretty well, actually, all things considered.
Dangers uses the lyrical opportunity to rail against the vapor trails that the title material, defined in an opening stretch-marked sample as “the visible leftovers of our consumption”, imprints against the international psyche to the point where “Common sense seems to take offense” and “Life has lost all its appeal”. It’s hard not being transported to a different time when hearing the track, which used to be part of why you turned on a Meat Beat Manifesto record. Retro-retro futurism isn’t nearly as appealing as the real thing, though. And on Autoimmune, there’s too much good nowism going on to settle for imitations.