A Token of My Extreme: Dälek- Absence (2004)
Ipecac Recordings; September 7, 2004
It may seem hard to believe these days, but hip-hop at its roots is a very experimental artform that flirted with the avant garde pretty early on. Proto-rappers The Last Poets had both controversial Afrocentric perspectives and strong jazz inclinations. Afrika Bambataa's "Planet Rock" was built on a sample from German electro-pioneers Kraftwerk. The Bomb Squad production of Public Enemy's greatest records owes just as much to skronking, astringent horn and sax squeals as it does to funk and rock rhythms. The Beastie Boys opus Paul's Boutique had a kaleidoscopic, pop culture-mashing production courtesy of the Dust Brothers that was postmodern almost before such a thing existed. Most Native Tongues-era groups heavily used jazz and house elements in their palette. Even as late as the early to mid '90s, producers like RZA and Prince Paul were finding clever uses for dissonant textures that took nothing away from their ability to create straight bangers.
And then the gangsta rap revolution and East/West rivalry boomed along with the rise of the Dirty South and mainstream rap settled into a sort of general stagnation, chained to too-smooth G-Funk and the outright lazy sampling of Puff Daddy/Diddy/whatever the fuck that shiny suit calls himself now, followed by crunk, Swizz Beatz, hyphy, Neptunes and Kanye. At the risk of sounding like some idiot backpacker, nowadays finding a truly creative hip-hop album is a task akin to picking diamonds out of elephant shit. White-boy indie rap often isn't much better than its flossin' radio counterpart, what with its necrophilia of hip-hop's good ol' days in lieu of anything original, or deliberate obscurity and wordiness to mask a lack of quality beats and energy.
From this middling and staid scene, Dalek (sorry, stupid keyboard won't let me make omlaut) is a NJ duo with music that rips the pretenders apart like a giant chainsaw. Lying in a strange no-mans-land between avant garde industrial, hip-hop and metal, they are probably one of the few (if not only) hip-hop groups that could get away with touring and even collaborating with the likes of Isis, Faust, The Melvins, and Godflesh without sounding entirely out of their depth. With MC dalek's intense Afro-conscious lyrics and very, very angry yet eloquent delivery plus Oktopus' devastating combination of traditional hip-hop drum and bass with what can only be described as Shoegaze From Hell, there hasn't been anything in the genre as urgent and bruising as Absence in a long time. This blows away even the similarly abrasive production jobs of underground god El-P, who is otherwise probably Dalek's closest sonic analogue. And yes they build that shit themselves--little to no sampling involved. Perfect for all the irrelevant rockist tards who love to dismiss the genre out of hand for its assumed "lack of musical talent."
The album begins with the six-minute fusillade "Distorted Prose," which rises from an impressive a capella intro (this guy can spit, no doubt) into a massive jet engine roar and later complemented by some thoroughly ill scratching from collaborator Still. It crashes to a shuddering stop and you're given a few precious seconds to catch your breath, a perfect summation of the overarching sonic violence barely contained throughout the album.
"Asylum (Permanent Underclass)" paints a brutally dystopic picture of blacks thrown to the wolves of American capitalism and the police state and unlike most similarly conscious hip-hop artists the backdrop matches the bleakness of its subject matter, with a pounding time change around the 3'30" mark. "Culture For Dollars" offers probably the catchiest chorus in the entire album ("Who trades culture for dollars?/The fool or the scholar/Griot, poet, or white collar?") and is one of the few tracks where Dalek's able rapping isn't nearly swallowed up by the oppressive din--probably the most accessible offering here along with the similar "Ever Somber." The title track's spacey interlude is followed by the tense and appropriately titled "A Beast Caged" and the nearly eight minute epic "In Midst of Struggle." The vicious clamor of "Eyes To Form Shadows" calls to mind a hip-hop Sonic Youth, dalek railing against walls of distortion and feedback between the wailing siren sonics that accompany the verses.
Absence is a focused, monolithic death machine, mostly for the better. Its only downside is that 57 minutes of grinding hip-hop colossus with not too much variation aside from the title track and similar instrumental "Koner" can get overwhelming, as can MC dalek's streams of agitprop--subtlety is not their strong suit here, and their later works are a bit better in this regard. But if you're reading this column I doubt you're looking for subtlety anyway. Bottom line, this is perfect hip-hop for jaded heads and adventurous metal/industrial lovers alike, and carries on the original pioneering spirit of the form without ever bending to B-boy anachronism (Jurassic 5, I'm looking at you).
This album inhabits an interesting position, with enough hip-hop in it to not be immediately likeable by rap-metal dudebros (Rage Against The Machine this is not) or straight metalheads, while more mainstream oriented hip-hop heads might balk at the general aesthetic and rejection of conventions such as guest rappers and emphasis on voice. A healthy selection of Definitive Jux-related artists (El-P, Cannibal Ox, Mr Lif etc.) would probably be a good starting point for the uninitiated coming from the rap side.
It's also worth mentioning that the aggro-hop group Techno Animal (a collaboration with Godflesh/Jesu's Justin Broadrick) and their best album Brotherhood of The Bomb is very, very similar and definitely a good listen for anyone into this.