Towering concrete starscrapers and angular steel constructions dominate the spare soundscape of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s Drokk. Recorded in six months between Barrow’s world tour with Portishead and Salisbury’s work for the BBC, Drokk is “soundtrack music” inspired by Mega-City One, the dystopian metropolis policed by a group of authoritarian lawmen in the iconic British comic strip Judge Dredd.
Drokk keeps one finger firmly on the thumping pulse of classic sci-fi scores by John Carpenter (Escape From New York) and Vangelis (Blade Runner). Nevertheless, Dredd aficionados Barrow and Salisbury carve out a unique sound that faithfully captures both the dark, fascistic tone of John Wagner’s writing and the gritty, monochrome aesthetic of Carlos Ezquerra’s original artwork. They achieve this almost exclusively with the pair of 1975 Oberheim Two Voice synthesisers that are used throughout the record.
On the opening tracks, the synth’s sound is as abrasive, dissonant and all-encompassing as the tyrannical rule of the Judges. “Lawmaster/Pursuit” begins as a thin whisper playing over a monotonous bass drone, but by its breathless crescendo the track has built into a multilayered prison wall of sound. Equally overbearing, “Scope the Block” is music to be surveilled by, its ominous electronic groans and half-time drumming recalling French dance outfit Justice at their most menacing. Perhaps lamenting lost freedoms, “Titan Bound” sets off a mournful ostinato that first flutters alone through the high registers, becomes ensnared by other stronger sounds, and finally succumbs in smothered silence.
Foregrounding the strong basslines and looping melodies that underpin the entire album, other less sinister tracks suggest an energetic resistance to the totalitarian system. Its clean, sharp hooks catching in the memory, “Justice 1” sounds almost better suited to an illegal rave in one of Mega-City One’s disused warehouses than to the infamous Judges sent to shut it down. Just as invigorating, “Council of Five” describes a clash between outlaws and the city’s highest governing body: a bleeping pedal point and a simple melody withstand tortured clusters of notes that fall from the skies, writhe and scream through the mid-range, and then crash like incendiary bombs onto the track’s hammering bass.
Left hyperventilating by all these oppressive synth-driven tracks, “Exhale” diffuses some of the tension with its host of time-stretched acoustic sounds. Ethereal strings and vocals hint at a totally different approach to the material, softer and more thoughtful, that re-surfaces later when Beak>, another of Barrow’s many side projects, appear on “Inhale.” Their krautrock sound and live instrumentation, a momentary respite from the pervasive synth and the grim world it evokes, spill out beyond the track and initiate the dense, warm harmonies of “Iso Hymn” and “Dome Horizon.”
Drokk was once intended to accompany a new, original Judge Dredd screenplay and, although this never emerged, the music hints at a film utterly unlike this summer’s big-budget remake. Delving deeper than a Hollywood production would dare, Barrow and Salisbury’s rigorously imagined sound map of Mega-City One depicts main streets rife with crime and state brutality, back streets in whose clubs citizens dance an energetic resistance, and even hidden gardens that offer snatches of quiet calm. This is a rich, complex and conflicted soundtrack for the best comic book movie never made.