Dälek: Gutter Tactics

The experimental hip-hop duo's fifth proper album finds an even clearer way to convey the limitation of language as a mode of expression, and the confusion and ambivalence of living in today's trying environment.


Gutter Tactics

Label: Ipecac
US Release Date: 2009-01-27
UK Release Date: 2008-01-26

The hip-hop heads who follow the genre as closely as high rollers watch a horse race might have other ideas, but for my money Dälek (pronounced "DYE-a-leck") was responsible for the best -- and most depressing -- rap song of 2007. Over 10 minutes in length, the title track from Abandoned Language channeled a world of depravity in the muted wail comprising half of the song's melody, looped and sustained into oblivion. What begins as "typical" hip-hop fare sprawls upward and outward as bricks pile atop others and the instruments steadily crush everything beneath them, but not before Okt0pus and Dälek (the MC after whom the duo is named) have their way with words. Amidst their scary, surrealistic street poetry, delivered in a low bark burning with steely resentment, one very direct line stands out: "Six-hundred years, ain't a fucking thing different." And then, just as this thought is allowed to sink in, the raps fragment and dissolve and the music picks up their slack, conveying in sounds what Dälek and Okt0pus cannot express in language.

Taking the song's trademark aphorism absolutely literally is missing the point. Of course society has progressed since the Middle Ages, but as for us as human beings, well, the story isn't quite as flattering, is it? We've gathered from historical accounts, art, and literature that the roots of humankind grew from seeds of violence and vilification, neither of which has ever really gone away -- only changed form. People still kill people. There's still a palpable discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. Narcissism powers the engines that drive many of us to our goals. Dälek have treated these judgments as mere observations in their decade-long career, throughout which they appeared to have only become angrier and more focused, as well as more lyrically concrete: who has time for alliteration when someone's just been murdered on the corner of the block? The ingeniousness of the Dälek project, however, lies and may always lie in the overwhelming sheets of sound that throw the two staples of hip-hop (beats and rhymes) into the back seat when they're simply not powerful enough to send the message. Stuffed with noise, mutilated by pedals and after-effects, and layered with instrumental drones both tempered and insane, the music is a poignant retranslation of their worldviews and a hell of a statement in itself -- one that describes the gangs of Dälek's home state of New Jersey as much as it does the ugly primordial soup out of which we arose well over 600 years ago.

This sort of racket that Dälek deals in has led the lazy among us to label the group as "alternative" and stop there, without plumbing the possibilities of what they're ultimately trying to do. By now it's well known that they've toured with Isis, collaborated with Faust, and share more sonic signifiers with the Melvins than Madvillain. They're also experimental in a real sense, fiddling with recording techniques and setting their sights on a different aesthetic each time out; they conceptualized Absence as "the book" on extremity, Abandoned Language tried ambience on for size, and so on. Even more than experimentation, however, Dälek have been all about the continual exploration and perfection of a single idea: that even within a decidedly hip-hop framework, music can speak volumes when words feel inadequate. And Gutter Tactics, their fifth album proper, provides perhaps the clearest expression of their intentions yet.

Louder, viler, and grittier than its predecessor, Gutter Tactics grew out of recording sessions played by the Deadverse Massive, a shadowy collective of noise artists closely affiliated with the duo. As the musicians whaled on their instruments, Okt0pus and Dälek modified their sounds in real time, ostensibly as a way to excise all the audible humanity from them. Indeed, the backgrounds don't give the impression that they were played by humans, but rather occurred naturally, spewed forth from a hole in the earth or dropped from flying aircraft. After the infamous Reverend Wright gives an incendiary speech condemning Americans' role in terrorism during "Blessed Are They Who Bash Your Children's Head Against a Rock", "No Question" continues the onslaught with a muck-laden diatribe whose drums stomp threateningly beneath the noise of a thousand melting pianos. The even uglier "Armed with Krylon" trades the pianos in for an army of motorcycles splattering Black Sabbath-begotten sludge onto an extraterrestrial hip-hop beat, the way Paik might sound had they been produced by Dan the Automator. El-P is really the only contemporary hip-hop artist working in the same arena, but Dälek deliberately eschew El's swiftness for the "heavy" that they seemed to have kept in their crosshairs since Gutter Tactics' inception. Nowhere is this truer than the eight-minute "Who Medgar Evers Was...", a trudge through a swamp with concrete boots that dares you to complete it.

It's a remarkably exhausting listen from end to end. The raps are stylistically pedestrian and the beats rarely deviate from a leaden 4/4 thud, but this often works in Dälek's favor, since it allows ample latitude for the music to get pushed to front and center. One notable exception to the norm is "Los Macheteros / Spear of a Nation", whose beats consist almost entirely of shotgun blasts. From M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" to Terror Danjah's "Cock Back V1.2", the purpose of gunshots-as-beats has primarily been to rally and galvanize, but the ones here are uncommonly defeatist. In another context their rhythm could've been reggaeton, but they've been stretched and slowed into un-danceability, and as the track progresses the sad, sad melody continues to engulf them until the music and the shots' echoes become virtually indistinguishable. The verses, too, get bulldozed into the back of the mix, and while it's often difficult to understand them, they're clearly stewing with pent-up rage and seem to be escalating toward something enormous. The duo's alarming poeticism -- heard more sharply on Abandoned Language -- is missed, but underneath the music's thick substances the tone of Dälek's lyrics (both attitudinal and timbral) makes perfect sense.

If this approach sounds suspiciously like shoegaze, it may be vindicating to know that My Bloody Valentine has remained a spiritual influence on the group, and that Loveless is a perennial favorite of Dälek the MC. (In a 2005 interview with Pitchfork he called it "one of the most beautiful records I've ever heard".) Strange to imagine that the paths of the transcendently gorgeous MBV and the generally repellant Dälek should cross, though there are moments -- "We Lost Sight" and "A Collection of Miserable Thoughts Laced with Wit" among them -- when the line between ugliness and beauty on Gutter Tactics becomes extraordinarily thin. The strongest link between the two acts, however, bypasses the level of sound into the realm of philosophy. If shoegaze is all about surrendering blissfully to the elements, then Gutter Tactics turns this experience right on its head. Okt0pus can barely get through two verses in the closer "Atypical Stereotype" before he malfunctions, becoming locked on the phrase "Truths stay intangible, they treat us like animals" and then giving way to the music's chloroforming weight. It's a singularly affecting instance in an album full of them, in which Dälek reluctantly, ambivalently, confusedly, and perhaps fearfully submit to forces they know are far greater than themselves.

The record's crowning achievement may be how truthfully Dälek convey this ambivalence through music, and in so doing, capture the spirit of a world where tragedy looms overhead, where hate is scarily effective, and where the victim and the victimizer are often the same person. Whether these negative forces attack us from the outside or grip us from within, they're too huge and amorphous to fight against on our own, and Dälek seem to realize it. Another line from "Abandoned Language" comes to mind here: "I say I'll keep a pen to pad and fingers on triggers / Should I aim it on the temple or several? Can't figure". Gutter Tactics gets Dälek -- and maybe us by proxy -- no closer to answering this question, for as traumatic as these musical passages are to swallow, it's unclear whether they signify a cocked weapon or a white flag. Yet this fully realized artistic expression of confusion is as deft a statement as we're apt to get from a duo that's been searching for years to discover the tortured voice in their voicelessness.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.