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Kode9 + The Spaceape - Black Sun

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Artist: Kode9 + The Spaceape

Album: Black Sun

Label: Hyperdub

Review date: Apr. 18, 2011

Dance music is easy to overthink. Not "feeling" something is tempered by the knowledge that this is a different world, in terms of intention and context and history, than that of rock. And rock is where many (American, for sure) critics and listeners probably defined “feeling/not feeling” for themselves. So, upon hearing something as slippery as Kode9’s latest collaboration with The Spaceape — an album that attempts something new without leaving the established culture of U.K. dance music — you might fail to hear anything interesting for several listens. I didn’t. I kept at it, hoping that I was already listening to my new jam, that I just hadn’t given it time to work its magic.

But even after due diligence, Black Sun is the sort of album that gets lost in gray area between feeling and not feeling. It’s hard to separate the artists’ shortcomings from our own blind spots as listeners. It’s unclear how much just misses the mark, and how much is strictly for the heads. Further complicating things, Black Sun presents itself as a transitional album, not only in the artists’ development, but in terms of moving beyond dubstep. You can practically hear Simon Reynolds’ idea of a “hardcore continuum” — a self-regenerating, stable culture underlying the previous two decades’ mutations from hardcore to rave, dubstep, and beyond — at work. Kode9 dials down the bass pressure and The Spaceape leaves the cartoonish tentacle-mind-rape scenarios behind, leisurely exploring new terrain that their earlier efforts helped open up. It’s just hard to say how interesting the results are.

There’s an openness in the production style and lyrics that makes Black Sun feel unique, if infrequently compelling. The album suffers from poor sequencing: front-loading an album with its least memorable tracks — “Black Smoke” and “Promises” — is a serious obstacle, especially for listeners accustomed to the heavier productions of Kode9 and The Spaceape’s last collaboration, 2006’s Memories of the Future. The album scrambles for traction with anxious, scratchy rhythm tracks and nondescript declarations until the instrumental “Green Sun” introduces a seven-track winning streak. There isn’t much low-end to speak of, and it takes more than two tracks to adjust to its absence. If dubstep bass represented apocalypse, the sound of Black Sun is the afterimage of an explosion. What Kode9 lacks in oomph he eventually makes up in detail — “Otherman” forgoes huge dubby basslines in favor of a 4/4 house groove featuring some robust hi-hat programming and a thin, slightly dissonant chord progression glowing with radiation.

Black Sun takes a while to get going, but they don’t blow the momentum until the penultimate track, “Am I.” The title makes it easy to guess the rhetorical device (am I this thing or its supposed opposite?). Spaceape’s lyrics scan like high-school poetry by someone who just learned the word “dichotomy." To wit: “Am I a stigma feeling shame for the tings I should’ve done, or a father too cold to embrace his own son?” Spaceape manages to fit 15 more of these paradoxes into the song, making “Am I”’s 3 minutes and 41 seconds the most densely descriptive passage in the album. The production, especially during the chorus (with its quiet, rapid bass drum), counts among the album’s most interesting. Still, the premise of Spaceape’s subaltern sci-fi persona already embodies the kind of tension he’s trying to name here. Despite the energy of the performance, “Am I” doesn’t gel. That’s not just a negative thing: the Black Sun strategy is to play against their strengths, even if it brings them back to square one.

In the end, Black Sun doesn’t clearly fall on one side of the ledger or the other. The privilege of reinvention is something we’ve always granted rock bands, so why not extend the courtesy to Black Sun, an electronic album that’s awkward but earnest.

By Brandon Bussolini

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Memories of the Future

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