[18 March 2008]
By midpoint of last year, Daedelus had already succeeded in becoming one of the most well-respected talents currently working in electronic music. A handful of critically-acclaimed albums had set him at or near the head of the pack in terms of the post-DJ Shadow instrumental hip-hop genre. Daedelus—known to his mother as Alfred Darlington—capitalized on early successes with the release of 2006’s near-perfect Denies the Day’s Demise, which I reviewed very favorably at the time. The world, as they say, was his oyster.
Then what happened? Well, apparently, Daedelus decided to take one hell of a left turn, and Live At Low End Theory is the light at the end of the grimy alley off the boulevard. This new direction had been presaged by a 2007 EP, Fair Weather Friends, which was met with no small degree of bafflement in certain circles. This site gave it a particularly harsh review. Of course, any time an artist changes direction so sharply, they are bound to face something of a backlash: I imagine this is the reason for titling the disc Fair Weather Friends.
This new Daedelus took a bit of getting used to, seeing as how the music on that EP, as well as Live At Low End Theory, is significantly different from anything I’d heard from Daedelus before. With that said, it’s not really that different, in terms of the fact that Daedelus’ solid instinct for sound and unerring ability to produce spot-on lushness remains intact. It’s just that his instincts and abilities are being exploited for entirely different ends. Unfortunately, if you really liked Denies the Day’s Demise, I can’t really say whether or not you’d like this new disc—if you’re wedded to the old sound, the new sound might seem arbitrarily harsh, even grotesque. Our review of Fair Weather Friends is a testament to the fact that intelligent minds can certainly maintain rational disagreements. If that all sounds bafflingly vague, bear with me a moment longer.
Without having one shred of evidence to back up my claim, I will posit that somewhere between early 2006 and late 2007 Daedelus heard Girl Talk and Dan Deacon, maybe even Kid 606’s 2003 masterpiece Kill Sound Before Sound Kills You. Even if these specific artists weren’t on his mind—and I’d bet money they were—something clearly happened to cause Daedelus to drop-kick his previous well-coifed, tastefully philosophical sound into the bushes, in favor of, well, slammin’ breakcore and sped-up samples. So, yeah, a significant change any way you want to slice it.
But is it any good, you may ask? Critics have the annoying habit of circling around these questions without actually answering them, and I’ve certainly been guilty of more than my fair share of obfuscation over the years. Please understand, my reticence is not due to any lack of enthusiasm for the disc at hand, but simply a desire to qualify my judgment. Caveat emptor: this is not your father’s Daedelus. But it’s still pretty damn awesome.
By all rights, Live At Low End Theory has all the ingredients of a mess: one, it’s a live album, always a dicey prospect for any electronic act not named Daft Punk; and second, although there are traces of previous recordings, this seems to be almost entirely improvised in nature. Things don’t always fit together perfectly. Breakbeats have a tendency to pile up with jagged edges sticking out, the samples aren’t always in key, and sometimes the blurping basslines threaten to eat the whole proceedings alive. But those are hardly reasons to complain, really: considering the common criticism of electronic music as sterile and overly precise, it’s always a treat to come across something so gleefully filthy, obviously the result of artistic craftsmanship on the fly. It sounds like it was fun to make, and the obvious enthusiasm is infectious.
The album begins with a sample of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You” (the aptly-named “Put A Spell”), building over an ominous chopped-and-screwed beat that gradually transforms into a throbbing, pulsating rave monster. The tempo doesn’t really let up for the first two-thirds of the album, until in the last fifteen minutes or so (beginning with the relatively gentle “Get the Door”) it mellows out and flows into a beautiful denouement, still fairly up-tempo but more elegiac in execution than the hardcore poses that dominate earlier tracks. Somehow the album remains thoughtful despite its highly concussive format: Daedelus seems to be incapable of making sounds that sound anything less than emotionally resonant, and even—yes, even despite the violent nature of the new sound—contemplative.
So is it different? Yes. Is it possible that fans of Daedelus’ previous work might be turned off entirely when they hear the new, bangin’ sound? Also, regrettably, yes. It might even strike some as puckish on his part, setting off in such a markedly different direction after having gone to the trouble of building up a pretty nice fanbase over the last few years. It’s probable that many Daedelus fans will never warm to it. But honestly, I doubt Daedelus cares all that much: Live At Low End Theory is every bit as good as anything he’s done before. It’s casual, almost scattershot in a charming way that offers up an entirely different vantage on the man’s music.