Kode9 & The Spaceape Black Sun

[Hyperdub; 2011]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: dubstep, dread poetry, grime, dub, UK funky, techno, spoken word
Others: Cha Cha, Loefah, Pinch, Burial, Benjamin Zephaniah, Untold, The Bug, King Midas Sound, Actress

“An atmosphere lacking in oxygen, scorched by day, frozen by night, continually bombarded by the dimly radioactive rays of the sun.”

Winding out like an unplugged turntable, so intones the sample library pivot at the middle of the killer revisioning of Kode9’s 2009 single “Black Sun,” a track that skirted the edge of Kode9’s spacious, woozy dubsphere to explore the dancefloor dynamics of UK funky. “Black Sun,” like (but more so than) its bleaker B-side “2 Far Gone,” leavened Kode9’s signature sludge ‘n’ dread with a peppy and uptempo trip across a blasted dance plateau in an ecstatic search for guzzoline under dying, shooting stars. It’s reworked here as “Black Sun (Partial Eclipse Version),” and Kode9 delivers a similar galloping energy, as if the too-often predictable treadmill of the dubstep template had been circuitbent. The update, however, works the angle up into a fantastic tangent just a few phrases in by engineering a collision with a dance organism resembling Rhythim Is Rhythim, ramping up the dancefloor possibilities and propelling the track to an irresistible retrofuturistic plane. It’s a favorite of the album and an important crossroads.

In much the same way that the spoken-word interlude within the title track acts as a literal clue to the set of imaginative elements at play, the track itself sits at the center of the album and acts as a pore or keyhole through which the rest nervously sweats, through which we can limn the imaginative landscapes at work, discern or infer a structure. At the same time, as the album’s most obvious throwback to musical antecedents in Detroit techno and house, its utility as a tool to contextualize the album in terms of musical history, genealogy, or some other pattern is finally rendered useless, leaving it lying rude, nude, and singular at the heart of the album.

Just as Kode9 & The Spaceape’s brilliant covers of long, long ago hits such as Prince’s “Sign of the Times” and The Specials’ “Ghost Town” (brilliant excavations for a duo concerned with ‘black audio fiction’) became glowing specters of their lost selves in the gloaming of Kode9’s future dub, the technoid jack of “Black Sun” paid a revisit in the world of this album becomes illuminating only in that it presents its dark, blind, and blinding face to us. Unable to be seen as emblematic, its sign is that of an eclipse at the center. Anomalous, only in absenting itself as a yardstick or scale of judgement can we expect it to throw the margins into sharper relief.

Yet a center it does form, and from it toward the poles run the tangled threads of a common set of chromosomes. For, like Memories of the Future, Kode9 & The Spaceape’s earlier full-length collaboration, Black Sun is a concept album.

Black Sun opens under “Black Smoke,” with the crackle of a fire that immediately draws us, intractable cavepeople, close and curious. Spaceape announces that the “body is tiring,” penetrated by needles, and already we are transported into another world. Once again, as with Memories of the Future, it is a world perhaps only a hair’s breadth ahead in the future and, clutching at this straw, our bodies dangle over and dip into the frozen waters of the past.

This is time-traversal and time-implosion, and we are in the ‘audio-fictional’ realm of ‘concept engineer’ Kodwo Eshun, Kode9’s former co-alumnus at the University of Warwick’s iconoclastic Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Because, of course, Kode9 is Steve Goodman is Kode9 the Hyperdub boss & itinerant DJ is Steve Goodman the lecturer & author is Kode9 the creator of paranoiac and oppressive, melancholic and sublime slices of electronic musics that mine sci-fi and scalar synthesis, low-end dynamics and dread. With Kode9 in effect, Black Sun is a work that is inevitably traversed by these multiple guises, but it’s most immediately enjoyed as an example of the deliciously attractive strain of dystopic, science-fictive self-creation that the doom-appreciating edges of electronic music, and Kode9’s Hyperdub label in particular, are so good at teasing forth.

What often makes apocalyptica so attractive is the notion that some handfuls of an unquenchable speck — of hope, of love, of life, humanity, positive values in the sea of nihil — persist in the midst of a seeming totality of hopelessness, loneliness, death, inhumanity, negative quantities. The fire that simmers forth across the album is this vital speck. If not seen, it is at least sensed, and this fire that we hear, then, is a burning barrel of crude in a dying (or profanely profuse, Bosch-like) landscape sketched and stressed out by Kode9’s concrete-crumbling bass and rhythm constructions, crossed by Spaceape’s dread proems to a world either unwritten or, and here lies the discomfort, being set down as we speak.

But, around this flame, the desperate mass of men gather in a gaggle, to lope and shuffle and nod by the bassbins, it seems. As such, the less urgent moments on Black Sun seem somehow more appealing. Like Memories of the Future, it’s a hard slog fulfilling the temptation to trace the outlines of the concept that you’re sure adheres to the entire crystalline length of the album. Here, tracks like “Black Smoke,” “The Cure,” and especially “Bullet Against Bone,” which mine a hard-edged grime aggression, tend to upset the voyage. The cooler tales of sufferance — “Promises,” the John Carpenter stepper “Otherman” — are, in the end, the better upsetters.

Nonetheless, this is the world of my favorite scenes from the Terminator films, the flashbacks to a bombflashed future where ragged rebels hunker under a black sun in the ruins of human civilization, the rubble that forms the foundation of the new mechapolis. Black Sun is the soundtrack to that heavily edited and collaged YouTube fan video, the one where I left all the 90s Californian temporal-geographical settings out. It is also the soundtrack to an upcoming graphic novel by Raz Mesinai, a.k.a. Badawi, a testament to the lure of this music on the visual and literary imaginations.

Sunless, bathed in liquid metal (I’m talking about the music here), and with the edge of the crackling hearth stalked by man-machines and dubious interlocutors, it makes sense that when the writer of Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear dons his Kode9 guise he would be inclined to drop some sonic bombs, replete with drowning sirens and that token of the contemporary urban concrète, the two-step cha-ching SFX that stands interchangeably as the sound of a loading handgun and loaded cash register.

Does this mean we can level the same charge against Black Sun that is so often leveled against the latter-day musics loaded with dread that we might call dubstep or grime or even the harder edges of UK funky: that Black Sun is a reflection of a desolated post-millennium Britannia? Sure we might. But even if we grant that this music politicizes the urban by reveling in and revealing the dread-ful inherent to such a space, the analogy is severely limited.

First, you cannot say that desolation, urban or otherwise, is exclusive to the dub genealogy and bass music. The propulsion plus dread in Black Sun can share in the same hard-edge (but horizonless) imagination of a more techno-oriented ancestor such as Plastikman. Indeed, along with the title track, the most interesting tracks are those that move toward the heartbeat of techno, exemplified by tracks like “Love is the Drug” (one of a number featuring Chinese artist Cha Cha) and “Green Sun.” By reducing the bully bluster of the harder dancehall-, dub-, and hip-hop-inflected tracks, they speak, paradoxically, to the most stripped-back and dread-soaked dub concoctions of earlier Kode9 productions while at the same time facing the eerie glow of an unforeseen renewal, even if that emanation is some slick plaque of mutant mold or a black fungal freak piggybacking on a reactor core.

Just as this music promises material transformation while eschewing steady anchorage in this or that world of the mundane, Kode9 is averse to traditional musical designations such as mainstream, pirate, pop, and alternative, but insists on music’s active, productive influence. He prefers to understand music according to the model of the virus, a liminal, crystal life that dramatizes music’s effect as one of possession, whereby a listener, music’s host, is “taken over by it, transported into another world…”

Britain is, in Spaceape’s phrase, a scorched earth of burning chalices and deceit. (Just look at central London over the course of a given ‘civil’ and ‘well-policed’ demonstration, and the reasons animating those activities.) It is a highly-specialized and fragmented Ballardian nightmare. Yet the dread music virus that here finds a vector in Kode9 & The Spaceape cares little for the permeable membranes of the national. Even as it evokes, within the proscenium of the imagination, a compelling landscape that lends itself to the visual and the allegorical, this music is less concerned with space than it is with time and temporalities.

Says Kode9, a.k.a. Steve Goodman, PhD, he and Spaceape are interested in the present as “both an echo of events that have happened in the past, and an echo of events that are yet to come… time scrambling, time loops which lay outside of chronology. The co-existence of the future and the past in the present.” This music, in and of itself but perhaps also activating a model for music in general, is always another world. As such, as a material and moving object, it has the ability to transform this world, the worlds of its listeners, its hosts, even if it functions by “bringing out that which is alien in your environment.”

Signing the times, irrespective of environment and spatial specifics, this is music that can reveal what is before us in the world: the future collapsed into the present. I cannot help but return to a spatial metaphor, but I imagine this process as a lifting up of the obsidian flagstones to bring the unseemly alterity in what was assumedly the native and benign into the light. If, at its best moments, Black Sun invokes the retrofuturism that lies along the axis of the Detroit techno/Chicago & acid house era, it does so in order to exemplify a typically fertile statement of Steve Goodman, that “the future is not what it used to be.” The future (of music or otherwise) is neither Detroit’s, evidently, nor techno’s, nor dubstep. Nor, as I’m sure Kode9 & The Spaceape would concede, is the future theirs. The future is feeling out the fertility of that living creative flame under a sun that seems always either too dim to light the way or too bright to see clearly by.

Black Sun is spotty and rusted, and it is likely that it will be interesting to most for this or that track — a grimy slayer, a leftfield floorfiller — or for the fact that it has a fantastic musique concrète apocalyptic vignette featuring Flying Lotus for a coda. However, turning the album this way and that, it refracts something salient, timely even. If we brush off the dust in time, I suspect, it will rank, despite itself, uptown in the annals of bass music history, if only because, dropping five years on from its older sibling, its provenance assures its status as an essential release.

Links: Kode9 & The Spaceape - Hyperdub

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