By Chet Betz | 13 February 2009
It was 2002. I was a college student just starting to get into underground hip-hop, still basking in the glow of an event as seminal as The Cold Vein (2001), hopeful that here was this whole new plateau where dirtily glowing rap production bridged the Bomb Squad with post-millenial transcendence…and basically a bit too naive to realize that an event like The Cold Vein is seminal in part because it is singular. The kid in the lower dorm who attempted to share any and all of my enthusiasms played Dälek’s From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots for me like he’d just discovered my new favorite album, waiting for a look of shock and awe to break cross my face somewhere in the dozen minute avant-rap sprawl of “Black Smoke Rises,” the lyrics of which could most favorably be called “post-apocalyptic.” That look never came and to this day the kid in the lower dorm is probably disappointed about the whole thing. Well, so am I.
A lot has changed and a lot’s stayed the same. The former, to wit: I never see that kid any more; I’m starting to doubt that any album is going to or even can pick up where The Cold Vein left off in terms of rap production that is equal parts hard and amorphous, black steel and star plasma, structured like constellations bound by barbed wire (the rest of El-P’s career has been about only halfway following through on the promise [and apparently Vast Aire and Vordul blew their megawad]); Barack Obama is president. The latter, to wit: Dälek. Dälek has stayed the same.
Their politics are still loud and grim to the point of being overbearing, sort of like Immortal Technique for backpackers who care ‘bout how the music sounds—I mean, the opener treats Jeremiah Wright like a high priest and God’s prophet. The aesthetics are also loud and grim to the point of being overbearing, Oktopus as repetitive in his techniques as namesake rapper Dälek is in his schemes, flow, and concepts. I still believe in the potential of distortion rap; I think Oktopus does, too, but he must have forgotten what “potential” actually means as his compositions meander, semi-melodic washes of noise ebbing in and out of each other over an assortment of drum tracks complacent enough to let shit just ebb all over them. I still believe in the power of protest; I know Dälek does, too, though it seems that he’s forgotten the importance of hope, the penultimate track here being “2012 (The Pillage)” and the closest thing to upbeat the record’s indictment of the rap scene with “We Lost Sight.”
To give due credit let me say that it is kind of hypnotizing, this filthy shoegaze tied down to hip-hop by some sparse 4/4, some scratching, and an emcee. But as impressive as it can be on a surface level it’s ultimately one dimensional. And it is kind of endearing, this single-minded devotion to dropping dour real talk, this willingness to rain on any possible parade, to act the unflinching bearers of ugly truth. But “A Collection of Miserable Thoughts Laced With Wit” is exactly the sort of meta statement of purpose that undermines everything it wants to be, so forward in its self-absorbed motivations that in effect the otherwise powerful and intelligent piece of art is running backwards, away from us and into the dark of its own asshole from whence it came. Like watching something by Charlie Kaufman that’s not Eternal Sunshine.
No question, Dälek have refined their work but their work has no reaching trajectory. Refinement is lost in redundancy, and all this subdued fury in sound and ethos becomes an amplified single note in a minor key, hammered away over and over until I as listener am eroded into debris, a mess of disjointed appreciations, and washed down the gutter—along with the rest of civilization, apparently. Dälek’s kind of like the guy on the street that sells umbrellas and yells that there’s a storm coming, the only difference being that Dälek has no umbrellas.