Echo Depth Finders eschew the slick production and self-aggrandizement of traditional hip-hop, only to find themselves lost in figuring out how to deal with what's left.
Even if we ignore the pomp and bling of MTV's idea of rap music, even if we stick to the confines of supposedly "independent" hip-hop, we don't often hear anything like this. Production styles are slowly veering towards slick, complex beats, sacrificing the raw for the deep-fried, the dry sounds of the street for the bright sounds of the club. It's enough to make one think that the revelation to be found in the music of Echo Depth Finders is the harrowing sound of realism, aurally as stark in its shades of gray as the lost hopes of lost souls.
Even so, it takes only a couple of listens through Echo Depth Finders' debut album The City of Dolls to become desensitized to the starkly presented beats and sounds of aural manipulator DigitalOne (whose name sounds discomfortingly like a large corporation that specializes in PDAs). The generated mood is largely due to simplistic beats, dry production, and the squashing of nearly every melodic element that tries to make its way in the mix -- a single-note piano line becomes part of the beat on "Cometrue", and a wispy background synth on "Happy to be Blind" might as well be so much white noise, filling space for the sake of filling space.
So we move to the vocals, looking for something interesting on top of the stark beats. The MC calls himself "Wrong", which is cute, and something that sounds like a Jamaican accent lends itself well to the noises behind it, the juxtaposition resulting in a vaguely ghetto-tropical feel -- no small feat for a pair of Russians, I'd think. The story is that most of this is (or, at least, originated as) freestyle, too, and as freestyle goes, a lot of it sounds pretty solid -- "Yo all the slaves of the bassline bass / Will be erased / If you will chase / Hear them shout out for the Radio 8," spits Wrong, and it's apparent that he doesn't have a lot of profound wisdom to share, but at least he says what he does well. Of course, Wrong starts to grate, too, as he begins to enjoy his own voice a little too much on experiments like the overly slurred "Nomore" and the croaked, unintelligible first minute of "On the Air (Freestyle Pt. 2)", which sounds a bit like a drowsy rant from someone fresh off a heavily-novocained visit to the dentist.
As frustration with the vocals mounts, we turn back to the music, looking for subtlety in DigitalOne's production that perhaps we didn't see before. And we find it! DigitalOne evidently has an affinity for many different types of electronic music, resulting in tracks that hint toward drum 'n' bass ("Stepinto (No POWs)") and Autechre-influenced IDM ("Happy to be Blind"). Sure, these styles are filtered through DigitalOne's disdain for all things melodic, but they do give the illusion of variety. DigitalOne's most common trick, however, is the skipping of beats throughout the album. Wrong could just be talking along, and suddenly his voice will jump somewhere else along with the music, for no apparent reason. Vocal lines get digitally repeated, production occasionally goes the "skipping CD player" route ("But Still Nothing"), and it's obvious that DigitalOne is, at least, actively trying to keep things interesting. He makes you want to root for him, even as he fights a losing battle.
What's left, then? Not much, apparently. If we were to perform the test implicit in this duo's chosen moniker, we would find that the echoes are perilously close together -- that is, there's not much depth to this music, particularly for a band with the word in their name. The City of Dolls hints at the sublime, the types of tracks that get under their listeners' skin and don't let go. The problem is that past the overlying mood that the album evokes, there is nothing at all memorable about it. The press for The City of Dolls boasts of how quickly the album was created -- perhaps a little more time on the next go 'round will be all that DigitalOne and Wrong need to create something that titillates on the tenth listen as much as it does the first.