A dismal rain pours on a ramshackle village. Makeshift roofs buckle under the wet weight. A howling wind whips the tattered shutters, behind which frightened eyes gape and arthritic hands tremble. Pitiful fires dot the dark-grey streets. Hollow drums beat ominously. The end is coming. Then the narrator’s emphatic baritone booms, “Under a spell of a random feeling / Weak, agitated, momentary breathing.”
Beats and bass-based albums seldom conjure vivid images and narratives, let alone a sinking feeling of anxiety. No one wants bad vibes in the club, right? Which says something about Kode9’s outlook. Once a self-described devotee of jungle, the UK-based producer and DJ now often only implies rhythm and focuses on textures and qualities of sounds. He makes careful and deliberate pieces that emphasize space (think of his debut “Sine of the Dub,” a literal refraction of Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times”) or conjure spaces. Critics often link him to dubstep, no small part due to his influential label Hyperdub. Yet his first full-length, 2006’s spacious Memories of the Future, with emcee Spaceape, hardly fits that category or any one for that matter. The follow-up Black Sun (also with Spaceape) arrives roughly five years later, but Kode9 remains committed to telling new stories through sound.
Black Sun takes a page out of the book of Apocalypse. “I wander, seeing heavy black smoke ahead,” says Spaceape as he channels Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on “Neon Red Sign.” Meanwhile fire crackles and fat bass tones gurgle below his heavy narration. There is little hope here. On “The Cure,” Spaceape drones, “Caressing insecurity / Deeper than your enemy / Anger is an energy / Suicide a remedy” with little affect, suggesting the worst possibility is now a logical inevitability. Kode9 normalizes the mood with a bevy of synths that replicate the drone of everyday life. Spaceape calls out existential questions while IM chat message alerts respond on on “Am I.” In this way Kode9’s canvas contains Spaceape’s graphic stories as if to say, “This is how it should be. Accept it.” And that feeling is rightfully unnerving.
If all of this sounds heady and abstract, fear not. Black Sun is perfectly enjoyable without becoming susceptible to the feeling of dread (bass). There are enough lighter moments, like the hypnotic “Promises” and worm-like Kryon (featuring brother-from-another-coast Flying Lotus) to bring some needed levity. Also, pull apart each track and marvel at Kode9’s engineering. A heavy wallop of dub informs “Neon Red Sign,” yet 2-step and broken beat sections magnify the nod factor. The overall result is like a synthetic dubstep — the appearance and sensation of the music without the actual parts. The album’s instrumentals “Love is the Drug,” “Black Sun” and “Green Sun” illustrate this point best as Kode9 fills the vocal void with constant rhythmic shifts and tweaked out synths. Unsurprisingly, the album sounds great at home or through head-/earphones. It offers a private moment for you and your imagination. The irony is Black Sun is better-suited for the club. The album’s sounds and ideas are large enough to fill a dark, echoing room. Yet most clubs these days are drinking the fist-pumping Kool-Aid. But we can always imagine, right?