Initial reviews of Surrounded by Silence were less than favorable. They claimed too many guest artists and too many recycled ideas had stifled Scott Herren’s forward progression. I agree. At first, I decided not to purchase the album rather than risk disappointment. My bravado was of that typically afforded to ex-girlfriends with unresolved issues. In the face of criticism, I refused to budge, continually trotting out other’s opinions as my own. That time is through.
Prefuse 73’s 2003 debut album was a glitch-hop masterpiece. One Word Extinguisher struck a blow to the ego of emcees. It was an autistic work, communicating indecipherable messages which were sewn into the slivers of samples, devoured and regurgitated as glitches, hisses, and pops. I loved how Herren, as the anti-thesis of Prometheus, tore fire, and the mic, from the hands of emcees, returning it to its rightful place above the turntables with the true Gods of hip-hop: the DJs.
He allowed the emcee to rhyme, but he did so knowing their vocals would, at times, be diced into sound bite-sized morsels to be toyed with. Results varied, but overall it was a success—a hijacking of epic proportions that went largely ignored by the mainstream. Only ears sympathetic to the ever-weakening stance of emcees, those inclined to prop up the DJ, could heed its call. Herren had stumbled upon a revolution, a music resembling the instantaneous qualities of binary code, creating harmony by marrying hip-hop to the jarring bits and bytes of computer cacophony.
Surrounded by Silence continues those thoughts, but with considerably less success. The songs themselves remain moody, temperamental, and largely instrumental, the sound of artificial things chopped up and painstakingly reassembled so as to draw attention to their creator. Though this time around, those ideas are communicated less effectively, less urgently, less forcefully.
Herren is very aware of how these songs are interpreted, for he’s continually hauling out an alluring female voice on his most unnerving productions. “Pastel Assassins” does this, imbuing the song with a human element missing from other songs. And it occurs elsewhere on the album. Whether conscious or not, it rescues his most experimental pieces from being fragments of something and adds cohesion. Without them, Surrounded by Silence is noise that’s incompatible with most listeners. Even then he can’t keep his hands off the vocals, hacking them to pieces as the song nears its end.
“Hide Ya Face” unmasks the future of hip-hop as Ghostface Killa and EL-P trade lyrical barbs over a way-out space beat, chiming cow bells, and sluggish drum beat. Aesop Rock’s appearance on “Sabbatical With Options” demonstrates that schizophrenic flow fits schizophrenic beats, while leaving clues to the fan base of an album as progressive as this. Masta Killa, Beans, and even the GZA show up, but their performances do nothing to detract from this lacklustre outing.
Often it’s the shorter songs, of which there are six clocking in at less than two minutes, that ignite inspiration—the sort of creation-through-disassembly that is hard-wired into this cross-cultural hodgepodge. Like on “Mantra Two” (featuring Tyondal Braxton), where Eastern chanting meets beat boxing, awakening in my ears a “ghetto mysticism”. At longer lengths the jittery qualities of glitch-hop sputter, pushing patience towards intolerance. Having Herren interject a groove with grating samples is unsettling, even if it is to let you know he’s at the helm. And when music that is itself sketchy to begin with rattles you from its more jarring elements, the result is confusion, a lack of understanding, and, sadly, disillusion.