I remember when I saw Dälek back in 2008, at an ATP festival curated by Mike Patton and The Melvins. The band came out on stage all riled up, with frontman Will Brooks making his presence felt by giving the wild-eyed DJ Oktopus (Alap Momin) a fist-bump on the shoulder that was so charged with focused intensity that it came across as a full-blown punch. Reaching the edge of his pedestal, he informed the mainly rock-aware festival-goers that, contrary to the half-drunken questions he’d received earlier that day, he was in fact “not Kool Keith.” Then he and the group began proving this, bombing through a set that put the rest of the lineup to shame for its explosive indignation and overwhelming volume.
Eight years later and Dälek aren’t quite the same irascible outfit. Having departed on an “indefinite hiatus” in 2011 after five albums that paved the way for Death Grips, clipping., and any other enterprise conveying hip-hop’s rage via sheer noise, they’ve lost founding member Oktopus, who aside from his long-standing production work is now hunting a career in no-less strident dance music as BKGD Audio. Consequently, the band has changed its aural makeup, and while the shift from angry hip-gaze to, well, less angry hip-gaze may not be a direct result of Momin’s exit, there’s nonetheless enough of a divergence to suggest his absence might have something to do with it.
That’s not to say that sixth album Asphalt for Eden transforms Dälek into a shadow of their former selves, since the first thing that opener “Shattered” hits the listener with is the band’s incomparable knack for using decaying textures and tones as a figure for the decaying social fabric of their native Newark. The squalling, Digitech-Whammied guitar of co-producer Mike Manteca flutters unstably during the chorus before being eclipsed by a Trump-sized wall of keening static, while a resolute Brooks underlines just what this static represents: “the world got cataracts.” As the song plays out in a storm of high-pitched pulsations and turbulent drones, he vows to “shatter” these cataracts, to “struggle over hope” and “hit the right notes” in a counterattack against the shortsighted “actions of the states.”
Yet if “Shattered” and follow-up “Guaranteed Struggle” are Dälek at their cacophonous and incensed best, subsequent tracks like “Masked Laughter (Nothing’s Left)” and “6dB” reveal a band cultivating a lighter, more introspective side. “Masked Laughter” in particular is a hypnagogic, swooning eddy of layered electronics that stands as the album’s highlight, in which Brooks peevishly asks, “Y’all ever wonder why the fuck I’m enraged?/ I ain’t tryna bring us under this stage/ I’m tryna breathe/ I’m tryna breathe.”
Depending on your viewpoint (or mood), this juxtaposition of blissed-out sonics with pissed-off expletives is one of two things. Either it’s an interesting contrast, through which the heightened wisdom of such condemnations as “We kept it real when this whole world turned plastic” is underlined by the enlightened haze framing it. Or, it’s a somewhat confused and contradictory clash, one that highlights a potential tension in rap between the aesthetic demand to develop as an artist beyond simple anger and the moral demand to continue calling out injustice when you see it.
Either way, Dälek’s elaboration on the beatific template implied by such benchmarks as “We Lost Sight” from Gutter Tactics or the self-titled track from Abandoned Language nevertheless provides for some of their most interesting and nuanced material to date, despite Asphalt for Eden being arguably too short as a whole (it began life as an EP). Forays into guitar-laden ambience like “Control” are more dimensioned, multifaceted, and subtler than many previous entries in the band’s canon, its subdued, anesthetic atmosphere supplying a fitting complement to an environment that allegedly requires certain demographics to “Control sex/ Control mind/ Produce less/ Produce crime.” That said, following soon after the group’s reformation in 2015 after a four-year gap, the album still feels like something of a stopgap itself, like an overture to something more fleshed-out and fully elaborated. But in a world where “toxic levels of discourse leave us with no recourse,” it’s good to have Dälek back with us, not least because the Eden their music distantly evokes has been covered with asphalt for a long time now.