Here’s the premise: DJ Spooky (beat-digging egghead extraordinaire) teams up with thrash-metal drumming hero Dave Lombardo (of Slayer and, more recently, Fantomas). Their mission? To create a record that (to quote Spooky) “builds bridges between scenes and styles,” creating a musical dialogue about “cultural collision” in the process. Add to the mix guitarist ex-Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid (who contributes to six tracks), Chuck D (who raps on three) and co-production by Meat Beat Manifesto, and you’ve got a record that, in theory, should be a very intriguing listen.
But to quote Homer Simpson, “In theory, communism worked.” Drums of Death is a major disappointment: a dated, self-congratulatory parody of what an ambitious genre mix-up actually should be. In the album’s promotional materials, Spooky waxes pretentious about how he and his new friend Dave are “flippin’ the script…there’s new vocabularies to be explored, and we’re just making up new languages as we go.” Uh, really, Spooky? The “cultural collision” of rap and rock is a decades-old phenomenon. From Kraftwerk sampling Afrika Baambaata, to Run DMC and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” to Rage Against the Machine, to the Judgement Night soundtrack, to Jay-Z mashing up all over Linkin Park, the fusion of these two genres is hardly anything new.
And yet, here we go again. All of the participants on Drums of Death are phenomenal musicians, but there is little here to recommend. Most of the tracks are up-tempo instrumentals with titles that sound like they should be “Man…Or Astroman?” B-sides (“Quantum Cyborg Drum Machine,” “Guitar DJ Tool Element”). These songs have an outer-space ambience befitting the disc’s sci-fi cover art, but at their core they are little more than jam sessions.
Reid’s otherworldly guitar squall and Meat Beat Manifesto’s studio trickery add some additional crunch, but all it amounts to is turd polishing. These tracks shine, however, in comparison to those involving Chuck D. He sleepwalks through three “hard-rock” versions of Public Enemy classics (“Brother’s Gonna Work It Out,” “B-Side Wins Again” and “Public Enemy #1”) as if he’s been in a coma after going on tour with Anthrax in 1991. This is noise that never needed to be brought.
The best song by far is “Assisted Suicide,” featuring vocals by Newark emcee Dalek (whose Absence is one of 2005’s best albums) and composer Meredith Monk. This track moves beyond the stilted interplay that typifies most of the record. Dalek’s harsh rhymes and Monk’s eerily looped vocals evoke feelings of urban isolation and decay.
But despite the fact that both Spooky and Lombardo have a track record of making interesting and challenging music, that’s the only song on Drums of Death that transcends its hokey “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” premise.