[25 September 2012]
Breakthrough is being touted as the full-length debut of Los Angeles-based DJ and producer Gaslamp Killer, otherwise known as William Bensussen. This is true, assuming one doesn’t count the 2008 Finders Keepers compilation All Killer, on which his role was more curator than DJ. A lighthearted, breezy affair, All Killer nevertheless stands as the purest distillation of Bensussen’s international influences and his ability to incorporate them into some kind of whole, not always seamless. In particular, his predilection for the music of Turkey, a kind of artistic acknowledgment of his ancestry, was already on full display – strange sounds you never knew existed, ranging from ancient folk melodies to tripped-out early ‘70s psychedelica, probably culled from some dusty crate in Istanbul.
Breakthrough is altogether darker than either All Killer or the (solid but ultimately uninvolving) EPs My Troubled Mind and Death Gate. In what may or may not be a concession to current electronic tastes, the Gaslamp Killer augments his sound with blasts of primitive analog synthesizers on tracks like “Impulse” and “Peasants, Cripples & Retards”. But 8-bit has rarely sounded this sinister, and it is but one element of many. A sense of encroaching entropy manifests itself in nearly every beat, guiding the album toward an eventual state of nothingness. Indeed, the final track (“In the Dark ...”) simply collapses in on itself; the last samples you hear are mournful horns, which seem to be sounding a call for which there is no response. Most tracks operate according to similar principles, the listener continually guided toward a disintegrative edge in the sonic landscape. Beats take chaotic turns when one would expect them to settle, and live drumming somewhat suggestive of free jazz appears on a few tracks.
It harks back to healthier times for the genre once dubbed “electronica”. My own theory is that such music peaked in the mid-aughts, around 2005. Advances in computer technology made both beatmaking and sampling considerably easier than they had been in the days of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing …. At the same time, people still bought and listened to CDs, so the collective attention span more readily allowed for albums to be listened to as albums. Everyone from Prefuse 73 and Four Tet to Madlib and Daddy Kev seemed to share an unlikely interest in avant-garde jazz, particularly as it existed in the early and less commercial days of fusion, circa 1970. There was a sense that the individual frequencies and wavelengths put forth by these producers might somehow congeal into one explosion of arrhythmic madness, from which a new avant-garde would emerge, free of any real boundaries. (Okay, maybe this is all just nostalgia for my early 20s.)
Fast-forward back to 2012. Gaslamp Killer cohort Gonjasufi’s MU.ZZ.LE remains one of the most interesting and underrated releases of the year, and so it stands to reason that his appearances on Breakthrough would be album highlights. “Veins” sets the wheels into motion with the line “Do me a favor / And cut your vein out of my heart”, delivered in a blunted otherworldly rasp and set against a staccato string sample, which you’ll swear you’ve heard before even though you haven’t. Even better is “Apparitions”; in fact, it is probably the best thing on the LP. Gonjasufi’s trippy mysticism lives up to both parts of his name, and his vocal stylings find their soul mate in an organ sample that sounds like Turkish modalities being played on a Hammond B3 – simply put, the best organ sample on a hip-hop-related track since Common Market’s “Trouble Is” or even “Curls” from Madvillainy. The other main contender for Breakthrough’s real “breakthrough” moment is the graceful instrumental “Nissim”, on which the Turkish element becomes explicit and in fact represents the track’s raison d’être.
The album is not entirely without weakness, especially on the vocal-sample front. Namely, an interlude called “Fuck” strikes a sour note not so much on account of its juvenilia as because the source material is a fairly well-known comedy record attributed to Jack “Voice of Disneyland” Wagner (though most people wrongly assume its from a Monty Python sketch), and surely something more obscure and truly ominous was called for on an album like this. These concerns aside, the upshot is this: Breakthrough is a substantive piece of work, an album to be reckoned with by critics and fans alike; for it not only fulfills the promise of Mr. Killer’s production work on A Sufi and a Killer, but also establishes an entirely new (and maybe impossibly high) set of expectations for a producer who appears possessed of genius.