[13 May 2004]
Thavius Beck stares balefully out at me from the promo blurb sheet like some fatalistic amalgam of Rick Rubin and Saul Williams; an air of calm determination and acceptance tinged with that eerie hint of strange intensity, plus huge amounts of (facial) hair. Next to his visage, the otherwise blank cover of his debut album displays the husk of a winged insect that resembles nothing so much as the burnt-out remains of a crashed plane, the arid organic structure returning to dust. From the outset, Decomposition seems set to evoke its title in as stark and focused terms as possible.
Cheerily titled opener “Miasma” bares up this impression; the precise tones of lady I Am That I Am read out a definition of the album title that lengthens into lines such as “The body becomes arid / Becoming harsher and more removed” over bass flub like a record skipping, her vocals occasionally distorting and stretching. So far, so Kafkaesque.
As if to clarify the album’s agenda a little, Thavius then steps up to the mic for the only time on the self-produced record, to bid us “Open Your F&@!ing Eyes”. Shiny percussion hits impact regularly whilst circling synthlines lurk like basking sharks. DJ Shadow-like unnerving dialogue surface in snippets in between Thavius vowing to “always do that other thing”, setting himself up as diametrically opposed to all fads. “Everything is right in front of you / People just don’t want to look”. A staunchly confrontational refusal to ignore the darkness and decay in life is laid bare, but the track (and indeed the album) leaves an impression of irritated certainty rather than misery or obsession. “What’s wrong with you, buddy, are you sick or something?” Bring on the grimly amusing ironic puns.
“What Lurks in the Darkness…” is not, unfortunately, a further look at that gonzo rock band’s lice problem, but rather the album’s first instrumental track. Again, brittle percussion forms the skeleton, occasionally fading into a dull pulse. A looped sample that’s both childlike and eerie sets the scene for dialogue from a German thriller, suspense building as two worried people discuss an ominous house. When they are joined by a third, echoes of the last words in their interchanges begin to split off schizophrenically away and around the ‘speakers’ in tight bursts. Here, another form of decomposition arises as the chopped samples become reduced to meaningless sound bursts by repetition, seemingly mocking those trying to communicate. Indeed, the record as a whole embodies a refusal of regular, accepted song structure; whether by repeating and warping chunks of verse or having a chorus that appears only once, if there actually is a discernible one. More grim, Germanic influences in the shape of the Bauhaus dictum ‘form through function’, then.
By the time “To Make Manifest”‘s didactic mantra of “Thoughts determine what you want / Actions determine what you get” has faded into its plucked strings and the crisp patter of percussion, the pattern for the album is fairly evident. Intelligent, kinetic drum programming, deep bass/synthesiser surges, electronic glitches, bleeps and samples pool together into a pulsating, dark-yet-clear fog drifting around your headphones (and the subtlety of the production really warrants headphones). Recalling Alias’ sound on last years’ Muted album, or perhaps Sixtoo’s new direction as heralded by “Boxcutter Emporium”, this approach does become slightly formulaic over the course of the album, yet, apart from the directionless “Exercise Caution”, the compositions remain intriguing, especially the more propulsive twisted guitar/electro of “The Inevitable… Is” and the Chris Clark-evoking “On the Axis of Misunderstanding”, with its sudden ‘yells’ of pain and rage.
Yet perhaps the best track here is the only one to feature semi-traditional singing: “Amongst the Shadows” with Cedric Bixler of the Mars Volta. His fantastic voice, like a flutter of velvet distress, is left to meander alone through a dark, glutinous cavern of sound whilst strange rattling things scrabble around at the edges of hearing and threatening motifs intrude repeatedly. It’s at once terrifying, pretty, and mesmerising; like recent Radiohead crossed with a great horror movie, you’re certain something unspeakable is about to crawl out of the headphones and tunnel into your brain but you can’t stop listening. And it ends in a manner so perfectly, ghoulishly evil that I can’t bring myself to spoil it here.
“Everything leads to erosion”: thus spaketh Aesop Rock, and here endeth the collision between American underground hiphop influences and German philosophic leitmotifs that forms Decomposition. Whether or not Thavius Beck shares his erstwhile labelmate’s rise to fame, this record proves he’s got talent to spare, and the (unflinchingly dark) vision to wield it. He’s sick alright. Just don’t spend too much time listening in to this abyss, or you may start hearing yourself. Coming apart.