Blockhead: Downtown Science

Mike Schiller

Blockhead's latest foray into instrumental hip-hop isn't so much heavy as it is weighty, not so much oppressive as it is suffocating.


Downtown Science

Label: Ninja Tune
US Release Date: 2005-10-18
UK Release Date: 2005-10-17

In a word, Downtown Science is dense.

Blockhead is the alter-ego of one Tony Simon, who has managed to gain most of his notoriety as the producer of the majority of Aesop Rock's Labor Days. While I'm sure he appreciates the increased exposure that such an association brings, however, it's clear that Blockhead would prefer to be recognized on his own merits, rather than as a sidenote to an MC (regardless of how talented said MC may be). 2005 marks the second consecutive year that Simon has released an album under the Blockhead name, and he doesn't show any signs of slowing down that high level of productivity, even as he produces odd tracks here and there by various rappers in the underground hip-hop scene.

The most defining aspect of the music of Blockhead is that there's a constant thickness to it, a difficult-to-define quality that gave the aforementioned Labor Days much of its celebrated identity. Blockhead's solo debut, the excellent Music for Cavelight, developed this identity while fighting it at the same time, offering solo piano or synth passages as ray-of-light respite to the overwhelming, oppressive density of everything else. The result was an album that played with our emotions as it made us nod our head, allowing us beautiful breaths of fresh air amidst the suffocating atmosphere. Downtown Science is a little bit different -- rather than toying with any sort of conflict, it embraces the darkness, an aural set of hands covering our eyes, nose and mouth, keeping us from breathing while forcing us to submit.

What makes Downtown Science intriguing is that it's not the traditional, gothic sort of darkness that one typically thinks of when such a description is used. Downtown Science is a much more urban darkness, filled with thunderclouds, dust, and decay, a walk through a stretch of abandoned homes, the sight of a long-dead factory with no more than a few windows left.

This mood is exemplified by tracks like "Crashing Down", a slow-burner that centers around a slow, chromatically descending vocal sample, one that seems to constantly be getting slower, even as the beat remains constant. It is that sample's tug against the strict tempo that Simon sets that evokes the feeling of being dragged down, struggling to stay afloat but never quite succeeding. The rest of the track is a thick amalgam of distorted guitars, whistles, and keyboard stabs, all over an ever-morphing hip-hop beat. It's difficult listening, to be sure, but rather brilliant in its complexity and ability to set a mood. "The First Snowfall", late in the album, is similarly evocative, using a muted guitar to simulate the setting of the title, as extended synth tones drive home the cold, still background over the requisite hip-hop beat.

There's only one spot where Downtown Science deviates from its downward push, an uncharacteristically fun little ditty called "The Art of Walking". A number of elements come together to excellent effect here, as funky bass backs a male gospel chorus over the most infectious beat on the album. In terms of pure sound, the feel of the rest of Downtown Science is maintained -- instruments thud as they do on the rest of the album, and there's the crackle of static to give the track a taste of the vintage. It feels as though the good vibes originate from the oppressive surroundings, perhaps allowing some kind of underlying message about the origins of great art to peek through the gloom of the rest of the disc.

Given its surroundings, however, I'm more inclined to think that "The Art of Walking" is a stage setter for the following track, "Good Block Bad Block", which uses lots of big rock 'n' roll guitars and sad, minor key melodies to tear down any of the good feelings inspired by its predecessor. Dennis Leary shows up for a sampled performance, outlining the conflicting realities of walking down a city street: "Good block, bad block, gun block, crack block, asbestos block, POODLE BLOCK! POODLE BLOCK!" Those who know the context of the quote can derive the meaning -- one second you can be walking down the street, not a care in the world, and the next second, you're killed by a poodle embedded in your skull. It's as if in pairing these two polar-opposite tracks Simon is telling us that life sucks, and just when you think it's getting better, you're dead.

To be sure, the DVD that accompanies Downtown Science ensures that it's the album to buy if making a choice between Blockhead solo efforts, as that DVD contains the entirety of Music by Cavelight in video form three times over. Contest winners' visual interpretations of that album are showcased, and excellent interpretations they are. Even so, don't buy Downtown Science expecting easy-listening instrumental hip-hop. Downtown Science is gritty, grave, and evocative enough to not require an MC to drive its message home.

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