Seldom has an album been so aptly titled. Fever Dream isn’t so much a record as it is a delirious aural hallucination, one that will feel like a reverie that you can’t quite pin down. Songs don’t start or end but bleed into each other, changing moods seamlessly but capriciously. By the time it’s over, you may not be sure that you can remember all of it but you’ll want to recapture as much of it as you can. It’s only 42 minutes long and consists purely of instrumental electronic hip-hop beats, but it’s hard to imagine another album this year that will reward repeated listening more.
Much of the criticism that surrounded Alias’ last album, Resurgam (2008), is that it was little more than a mellowed-out holding action, one that sounded pleasant but was ultimately forgettable. Fever Dream isn’t quite the radical reinvention some fans might be clamoring for (especially after three years) but Alias has delivered an album that can’t be accused of taking the easy way out. Even the best tracks on Resurgam, such as “Autumnal Ego” and the title cut, were more about the individual details than the overall song. Here Alias has done the reverse, concentrating on song structures rather than minor production niceties, which is much more of a challenge. A standout track on this album such as “Tagine”, for instance, takes a simple melody and weaves multiple variations on it, from minimalist rhythms to elaborate walls of sound. The trick is that Alias never loses focus on the basic melody, using it as a basis to experiment with but without wandering or getting lost in trivialities. It would have easy to argue that Alias sometimes had a tendency to lazily crank out formless jams that he would make slight embellishments to, but that argument doesn’t hold water here.
Moreover, Alias just sounds like he wants to rock. If one of the prevailing swipes at the Anticon crew is that they tend to be too cerebral to actually crank out enjoyable beats, then Fever Dream demonstrates that Alias has clearly heard that condemnation and wants to refute it. Consider the album’s standout track, the brutal “Dahorses”, which, clocking in at a mere four minutes, packs more of a wallop than virtually anything in the Anticon catalog before. Here Alias has constructed a barrage of noise that almost threatens to lose control but never really does. It’s almost intoxicating in its audacity, especially considering that Alias’ previous work was dismissed in some quarters as somnambulant. Even a more restrained song like “Wanna Let It Go”, which mixes soulful singing and more reserved dynamics, still burbles with vitality. In the one-sheet that accompanies the album, Alias (born Brendon Whitney) explains that the album was primarily inspired by the birth of his daughter, and it’s easy to hear his exuberance, which comes through on even the quietest moments.
Alisa also asserts that on this album, he returns to using samples rather than live instruments to create his music. That may seem like a minor distinction but it actually explains the album’s sound considerably. By having to consider where to deploy each sample, Alias ironically ends up becoming a far more focused composer than when he used live instruments. “Revl Is Divad” (originally titled “Swolejeans” in prerelease samples) might have ended up as a meandering experiment had Alias merely sketched it out on keyboards. By painstakingly piecing it together from samples, it sounds more thought-out and composed. The obvious comparison would be to the overlord of underground hip-hop producers, Def Jux’s El-Producto, but where El-P’s vision is unremittingly bleak and futuristic, Alias finds warmth even on the hardest tracks. Consider “Lady Lambin’”, in which the pummeling beats and aggressive samples are leavened by a haunting female voice that somehow not only fits but complements the song perfectly.
Of course, the flaw with making an album that’s based entirely on using samples as a compositional base is that the results can sometimes be not so much focused as repetitive. A song like “Boom Boom Boom” demonstrates that Alias’ relentlessness can tip over into monotony when applied to a pedestrian melody. There’s also little point to “No Choice”, a 90-second electronic doodle that seems designed primarily to show off a drum pattern Alias really liked. Yet even these flaws fit in with the overall theme of the album. After all, since when is a fever dream known for consistency and tidiness? That’s why Fever Dream is hard to ignore or dismiss—at its best it’s every bit as intoxicating as its namesake. It won’t change the face of underground hip-hop forever, but it will provide some entertaining listening. What more can you ask from a state of delirium?