[3 April 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When last we heard from New Jersey’s Dälek, they were immersing audiences in the disturbing strains of some of the darkest, murkiest variations of hip hop to come around in years. Equally influenced by Faust, My Bloody Valentine, and Godflesh as much as it was by Public Enemy and Afrika Bambaataa, 2005’s Absence was the high water mark of an ambitious run of albums that started with 1997’s Negro Necro Nekros and 2002’s From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots. Sounding like KRS-1 backed up by Merzbow, Absence was disturbing yet entrancing, the combination of harsh drones and tones with eloquent lyrics and thudding beats at first sounding as unnatural a mixture as oil and water, but soon became absolutely hypnotic, leaving listeners spellbound as tracks like “Distorted Prose” and “Ever Somber” meshed such seemingly disparate styles with breathtaking results. As the album’s atonal, shoegazer-inspired strains wafted away, leaving us to contemplate just what the hell we just heard, we couldn’t help but wonder what Dälek would have in store the next time out. Considering they spent a fair amount of time touring with Ipecac labelmates Isis, Tomahawk, and Melvins, we could be certain the next disc would be pack a few more surprises, and true to form, Abandoned Language is one of a kind. And it’s also arguably Dälek’s finest album to date.
Album number four has Dälek sporting a more spacious, organic sound, yet at the same time, for all its expansiveness, is often as dense and punishing as anything else they’ve put out in the past. A big reason for the stylistic shift is the absence of former turntablist Still; reduced to a duo, producer Oktopus and MC Dälek serve up a much more sedate record than what we’ve come to expect, with only the subtlest scratches and samples this time. Just like Isis has toned down the extreme side of its brand of post-metal, so has Dälek with its hip-hop, as the jarring sounds of past records have been replaced by strings, horns, and synths. That Abandoned Language is able to sound simultaneously challenging and accessible is its greatest success, the mark of masters at the top of their game.
Oktopus’s production is stunning, often gorgeous in its minimalism, and is a revelation heard with headphones. Starting an album with a sedate, 10-minute track is hardly the most commercially friendly way to kick off any album, whatever the genre, but “Abandoned Language” is apt for this group, as its sumptuous, gently unfolding drones envelop us slowly as dälek proselytizes and sermonizes. The cascading strings of “Isolated Stare” border on conventional mid-‘90s trip hop; that is, until exotic horns gradually fade in, their melodies contradicting with the central strings hook, as if the Master Musicians of Joujouka were sitting in with Massive Attack. The mournful “Stagnant Waters” is dominated by layers of elegiac keyboards and an anguished refrain of discordant notes, while “Corrupt (Knuckle Up)” features Oktopus at his most subtle, serving up only a hint of rumbling bass during the chorus before giving way to the more shadowy arrangement. Of course, the album is not without its share of darker musical backdrops, as “Bricks Crumble”, “Paragraphs Relentless”, and “Subversive Script” give listeners the expected sonic heebee-jeebies. Instrumental track “Lynch”, however, is Oktopus’s greatest moment on the record, as the screeching strings and disturbing drones come close to the nightmarish cacophony that made Scott Walker’s The Drift so astounding.
Lyrically, Dälek is as strong as ever, peppering his ruminations on the importance of language and nonverbal communication with his usual sociopolitical commentary. On “Corrupt (Knuckle Up)” he admits he’s fully aware of the challenge he has getting his rather erudite messages across to audiences, saying, “Never write my songs for consumers / Ironic cause I write for heads with fat laces on their Pumas.” Ever the wordsmith, he toys around with spellings and meanings throughout the album, slyly name-dropping obvious literary influences (“Bred in five Burroughs”) and intentionally inserts nonexistent words to complete rhymes, which in turn gives the album a sense of humility (“Same tree still grows in Brooklyn / Misery mistooken”).
“Bricks Crumble” has him wishing for more subcultural avatars from the African-American community, emphasizing the power of the written and spoken word: ” Need militant speech type Amiri Baraka… Words strengthen emotions they foster / Bricks crumble under feet of this author.” “Tarnished” features a very clever, Egyptology-inspired verse (“Traveled under soil with Osiris / Birth and death of modern world on the Tigris…Ink flow from pen to raw papyrus”), while “Stagnant Waters” is as gripping a post-Hurricane Katrina commentary as we’ll ever hear, Dälek spewing venom at the powers that be, sneering, ” Whole communities not fed / Declare marshall [sic] law instead / Derail all progress / Inaction of Congress costs lives / Tides rise / Tore through Leadbelly’s Levy / A saturated heart stays heavy / Can’t help but wonder if my masses stand ready / Revolutions cost lives / But an idle mind’s deadly.”
Communication remains the central theme of Abandoned Language. “Ideas are valid,” stresses Dälek at one point, continuing, “If younger heads quote this, then it ain’t all hopeless… Revamped rhyme pattern gathers pulse from street.” At the same time, Dälek’s vocals often fade in and out of the mix, sometimes sounding clear, other times sounding compressed to the point of being unintelligible. In a very impressive twist, the album’s lyrics are embossed on the pages of the CD booklet in a transparent font, teasing listeners, and going well with a line from “Isolated Stare”: “The tongues I speak intrinsic / Linguistics lodged in larynx made the words you spit transparent.” Whether it’s through clear, concise rapping, or haunting arrangements, Dälek’s message is always expressed with eloquence and originality, and four albums in, they remain one of the most engaging, original acts in contemporary music.