As I was walking home today, I noticed that the setting sun had turned the sky a deep, unsettling shade of red, almost as though God had set the sky on fire. I was listening to DJ Signify's new album Of Cities at the time, and it was striking to see how well it matched what I saw. It's rare to find music so concerned with apocalypses — personal, societal, or religious — as this. A dense, bleak instrumental hip-hop album intermittently reminiscent of Burial's Untrue or Tricky's Maxinquaye, Of Cities is beaten-down and defiant, where the former was distantly elegaic and the latter narcotically lovelorn.
Opening track “The Sickness” features a foreboding and minimal drone, over which Signify slowly adds deep, murky drum loops. This is followed by the album's centerpiece, “Low Tide,” one of the few tracks on the record with emcee accompaniment. An industrial buzzing that continually shifts from left channel to right is joined by a monologue discussing the purported scientific benefits of whistling while you work, after which Aesop Rock launches into his hardest-hitting rhymes ever. Simultaneously paranoid, angry, and despairing, and addressing civil war and art crimes in the same breath, it's the polar opposite of “Daylight,” the standout on Aesop Rock's third album Labor Days.
Even the songs built along a more clear-headed, straightforward groove have a palpable sense of fear and claustrophobia. “1993,” one of the few tracks that approaches anything resembling traditional instrumentation, even repeats “Not as crazy as I used to be,” but there's not a great deal of catharsis in the delivery.
It's a testament to how different this sounds from other instrumental hip-hop albums that, for me, the closest referent in tone -- if not in form -- is Scott Walker's The Drift. The rhymes on Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein come close, but El-P's production is too funky, too ornate, to really compare. Without Walker's overly dramatic vocals and often-absurd lyrics, music this dark acquires an entirely more worldly significance. Its urban subtexts, rhymes, and samples only further the atmosphere created by the production's industrial minimalism.
This, in a nutshell, is what will make or break this album for listeners. It's by no means an easy album to acclimate to, and chances are good that its unremitting darkness will come off as stifling the first time around. All I know is that there are times when I get the sense that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and this music seems like a near-perfect soundtrack. Give it a few spins, and you might just realize that this is one of those precious few albums that encapsulates post-millennial dread.
1. The Sickness
2. Low Tide ft. Aesop Rock
3. Interlude #1
4. Costume Kids
5. Delight to the Sadist ft. Matt Kelly
6. Interlude #2
8. Interlude #3
10. Interlude #4
11. Sink or Swim ft. Aesop Rock
12. The Gods Get Dirty
13. Interlude #5
14. Bollywood Babies
15. Interlude #6
16. Hold Me Don’t Touch