Monday, 18 April 2011

Kode9 and Spaceape - Black Sun: review

Whether through the exercising of a Western totalitarianism’s might in North Africa, the ongoing witch hunt America is indulging over Wikileaks or the continuing nuclear crisis in Japan- apocalypse haunts us daily, and governments profit just as regularly from exploiting these fears. That science-fiction can offer us more uncomfortable truths about our existence than realist prose is well-documented and largely down to it’s creative license and our willingness to suspend disbelief. The latter example holds special pertinence; Japan has processed it’s own nuclear apocalypse through metaphor and storytelling ever since the bombs were dropped, and there’s a crushing familiarity to the scenes being played out on 24 hour rolling news, of fact and fiction overlapping with a painful deja-vu. If this proves anything, it may be that our world is becoming tragically unmistakable from the paranoid, visionary fantasies of Ballard and the like: that the dystopic futures predicted in science fiction are seeming increasingly like self-fulfilling prophecies.

‘Black Sun’, the new LP from Hyperdub founder Kode9 and longtime collaborator Spaceape resonates along these lines, expanding the mythos of dystopia into a lucid whole comprising both a cohesive narrative and an appropriately unnerving aural palette. Lush cover art inspired by Japanese woodblock prints and an expansive graphic strip included in the liner notes elucidate detail onthe record’s concept. Standout track ‘The Cure’ draws on Spaceape’s own experiences with illness, manipulating it into a vague but compelling exposition of fear and post-humanism. There is a surrealism and unreality which pervades these themes, and perhaps fear is only natural- insofar as anything in cyborg consciousness can be. Many artists employ populist narrative themes to enhance their work, or imbue it with a borrowed relevance, and sci-fi holds a special appeal- Nine Inch Nail’s simplistic Year Zero comes to mind, as does Janelle Monae’s engaging Archandroid and Method Man’s Bobby Digital alter-ego. But ‘Black Sun’ adeptly negotiates the pitfalls of co-opting a sci-fi aesthetic- never painting it’s imagined future with a preaching morality or a deliverance of answers- this is music content with it’s curiosity of overlapping realities.

And if it sounds dystopian, a product of the broken future- then this is most probably the case- ‘Black Sun’ is carved from frequencies and tones designed with the record’s semantic content in mind. A lecturer in philosophy, Kode9’s recently published thesis ‘Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear’ describes the idea that sound can evoke effect, be transportative- and explores the way that sound is used to reposition the listening subject. Famously, guests enjoying the facilities at Guantanamo Bay have been treated to prolonged exposure to the Barney theme tune as part of their psychological conditioning- and generally speaking, its a philosophy which finds much in common with the pervasiveness of sound in Ballard’s writing. If sound has an important role to play in the construction or repositioning of subjectivity then ‘Black Sun’ uses these taut, alternating frequencies to strengthen and reaffirm it’s imagined nightmares and to project them with sonic certainty.

The album title is evocative in multiplicities; of contorted celestial bodies, sin and complicity, society’s death, manifest corruption, the occult- suitable themes for dystopia then- and the album turns on it’s title track, itself a retelling of an earlier story. ‘Black Sun’ was first released a single in 2009 and that version’s angular beat-work is here replaced with subtlety and a slow-build, it’s jarring synths softened, nuanced frequency work set around the shifting chords. Indeed much of this record has been collated over years- tracks undergoing frequent edits, lyrics transmuted between songs. This hypertext approach to composition is itself the product of cyborg mentality, and the artists use tropes of post-humanism throughout the lyrics- utilising their central narrative as means of tying these disparate recordings together with a thematic commonality. This is a world of nuclear fallout and transient identity, where taking the prescribed cure for Earth’s radiation will inevitably mutate you. This jarring predicament calls into question notions of identity and home, their inexorable connectivity.

‘Black Sun’ is a compelling record- that rare kind of concept album that offers an experience both sonically and aesthetically engaging. Perfectly suited to the late night headphone experience and urban navigation, I found myself repositioned through having this on- human interactions became software requests, at every turn I was interfacing with an external reality suddenly taking on qualities inherent to unreality. Perhaps that is the key element of a successful science fiction: that it forces re-perception upon you- brutal truths, abject nightmares and all.

First published in Notion.

We Love Japan, Akira the Don and Adam Ant: review

The bill for Saturday’s We Love Japan benefit at the (cough) “Relentless” Garage had been put together hurredly but with vigour, as is usually the case for such rapidly-announced charity gigs. All credit to the organisers of the night, who not only secured a plethora of bourgeois swag for the evening’s inevitable raffle but who had also coaxed out a rare solo gig out of, and I hasten to repeat the words, 70′s glam legend Adam Ant. I wouldn’t want to be glib, or offer too ready an embrace of kitsch- but gods! I’d come to check out Akira the Don, who had initially been booked to headline- but now I’m seeing an Adam Ant gig! Potential for rock star anecdotes to tell my dad just went through the roof!

Anyway, we’d not come to see the Ant- or that guy from E4 cast as the night’s awkward compere (how do you strike the right tone between recognition of utter tragedy and the desire to have a good night out?)- tonight promised only the opportunity of a rare live outing for the Hackney-based rap-tastic Akira The Don.

This gig, albeit a benefit slot, came at a good time for The Don- shortly after the release of the 25th free mixtape via his website, and before the release of his second proper album, The Life Equation. That mixtape, ATD25- is a phenomenally enjoyable thing- a unstoppable barrage of rapid verses, stupidly good sampling (their remix of Marina and The Diamonds ‘I am not a robot’ is a work of breathtaking alchemy), complementary guest verses and taut production smacking of professionalism and potential. Such sonic results demonstrate well why Akira was initially booked for the night’s main slot. That being said, and making do- a half hour set was more than enough for this enigmatic hip-hop artist to bring his particular ruckus to an audience left tender by the ear-shattering heavy metal band that had preceded (note: that’s not a criticism per se: I think ‘ear-shattering’ is firmly in the mandate for heavy metal bands- central to their raison d’etre, if you will).

Donned in an authentically ‘back in the day’ Wu Tang jumper (from the Iron Flag tour, OG auditers- but besides, what’s with everyone hating on Iron Flag anyway? Ok, it’s not traditional Wu- but it’s got some solid tunes! Akira knows…) and with the help of DJ friend Jack Nimble (who was given his props, no doubt) Akira tore through a set that reflected much of his back catalogue at it’s finest. Old school number “Living in the Future’ was performed with it’s trademark innocence remixed and Akira bouncing around the stage with a glee that was infectious. The beautifully summer ready ‘Oh! What a glorious day!’ gave opportunity for some bona fide sentimentalism, a sing-along in the chorus bracketing odes to cycling down the Kingsland Road in the sun. Pausing between numbers to orate in his uniquely enthused manner (after climbing up a side-stage ladder, noting to himself with excitement ‘Ok, wow- that’s a good climbing ladder..’)- there’s something that’s plain irresistible about the kind of hip-hop Akira the Don is making and all his swagger is ultimately endearing. Calling onstage a troupe of “hip-hop superfriends” (Pixel, Littles, Big Narstie, Marvin the Martian) for the closing number ‘Big Iron’, a standout track from ATD25- the song had the feel of a special moment. The track bounces and jangles like something the RZA might have produced on an upbeat day- and along the finest teachings of the Wu, each verse is magnificent, each rapper’s tone and flow complementing as well as drawing distinction from those around it. And that was that- the support slot feeling all too brief, all too enjoyable.

An intermission, E4 guy doing his level best, and the crowd’s dynamic manifestly altered: the front rows of hipster boys and lolita-inspired harajuku girls replaced by a row of 80s rockers who had taken to reliving their youth in dusted-off leather jackets, and their wives. I was under no illusion what to expect; this was a solo gig from Adam Ant, whatever that meant, and the signs around me were telling their own story. I was open minded enough, and thought I was prepared for this gig to speak for itself. But then, how do you prepare for a performance so underwhelming it merely confuses? Adam Ant bounded onstage dressed up like November 5th had come early. His guitar fed back throughout. He dedicated a song to Elizabeth Taylor (at a Japan benefit, I’d like to remind dear readers). He covered Wild Thing, stripping it of all it’s sex, and seemingly left in a small tissy after failing to rouse the crowd into a singalong with his broken voice. Seriously, some of those high notes? Were meant to be higher. Look, many people applauded him throughout- and he did well playing solo and keeping the crowd engaged enough- staring down audience members and offering perfectly contorted facial expressions on demand and in cue with the showmanship on the fretwork- but I didn’t get it and I’m confused about it to this day.

First published in Notion