The flame started burning when I first heard the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in 1992. I was already a hip-hop fan, but there was something particularly dark and noisy about Michael Franti and Rono Tse’s industrial grindings that appealed to my love of noise and strangeness (and their completely open politics seemed so much more aligned with the punk of Dead Kennedys than the narcissistic pop of their hip-hop peers). In 2004, I heard DJ Signify’s Sleep No More album and the flame grew stronger, fuelled by the darkness and chilling melancholy of these mostly instrumental tracks. Then I discovered Norway’s aggressive and noise-heavy Tri-Function Million around 2009, and the flame burnt brighter: Hip-hop could totally be as heavy as metal, without even a hint of guitar (because nothing appealed to me less than those mainstream hip-hop/metal collaborations of Cypress Hill et al, and nu-metal left me very cold indeed). Death Grips came along, revolutionising both the framework and the accessibility of hip-hop (needless to say, I loved it), and then Clipping followed, shining a brighter light on the use of noise as rhythm (I totally loved that as well). I mention all this because I only just heard about Dälek, and I don’t for the life of me know how they escaped me. They’re exactly the kind of thing I like. And dammit all, they’ve been doing this shit since 1998.
The most interesting thing for me about this kind of dark noise/ambient/soundscape-vibe hip-hop is exactly the same thing that I love about Bowie, John Lennon, or Captain Beefheart (and, of course, what I love about the aforementioned hip-hop acts above): the ability to tread the line between accessible and inaccessible, the line between strangeness and familiarity, between darkness and catchiness; essentially, the line between pop and antipop. And Dälek treads this line perfectly, creating incredibly listenable songs that effortlessly encourage the bobbing of one’s head, but that are filled with scraping screeching granular synthesis noises that would make a blackboard weep, and dark walls of pummelling drone that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a release by Lustmord or Nordvargr. The sounds are magnificently oppressive, and the beats have real heft. The lyrical flows are on point and expertly constructed, and mixed slightly lower than normal for a pop-oriented hip-hop mix, meaning that to properly experience the vocals you have to crank the whole thing, which works beautifully—again, straddling that pop/anti-pop line with precision.
Pretty much the only thing I didn’t like about this album was where it fell too heavily on the pop side of that line: the repetitive chorus-cycling nature of (for instance) the album’s opener, ‘Shattered’, made the song an instant earworm, but would’ve been a lot better at half the length. But once the opening track is out of the way, the rest of the album is pretty much completely gripe-free for me: The remainder is solid and nearly always errs on the side of disturbing and overwhelming, rather than the side of easy or expected. One of my favourite moments, for instance, is where the beat drops out completely in ‘Guaranteed Struggle’, and we’re given nothing but a dense slab of textured drone for a full half-minute before the vocals and beats kick right back in again. The tension and release work faultlessly, and there’s magical moments like that peppered throughout the album, making it an exciting and rewarding listen. The submerged drowning dreaminess of ‘Masked Laughter’, for instance, or the unexpected full minute of nothing but weirdly looped guitar at the start of ‘6dB’ (a track that also provides a perfect voiceless reprieve from the otherwise nonstop bombardment of wordage).
It’s a really solid release for anyone who enjoys the more adventurous side of hip-hop—and I’m pretty sure it samples Noam Chomsky at the start of ‘Control’, so that’s 100 automatic bonus points from me right there. Although I’m surprised that I’m only just discovering Dälek in 2017, I’m really excited about the prospect of devouring their complete back catalogue. Definitely check it out.
02) Guaranteed Struggle
03) Masked Laughter (Nothing’s Left)
07) It Just Is