Much of the music released on the Hyperdub label is British urban music in the most direct sense, capturing both the vibrance and the claustrophobia of life in London. From the backstreets and fast food outlets in the collages made by Burial to the streetlit soundscapes of label boss and producer Kode9. Once again reunited with vocalist Spaceape, less of a rapper and more of a surrealist storyteller. Whilst the Hyperdub label is usually associated with dubstep, the work of this duo goes beyond microgenre classifications. In fact, the emphasis here is much less on bass, and more on texture and sound overall. That this music is now having an influence outside its own niche (recent Radiohead tracks Feral and Supercollider owe much to Burial and Kode9) is probably evidence of the musicians’ desire to reach across boundaries.
The mostly one word titles on previous album Memories Of The Future (Glass, Portal, Addiction, Bodies) suggested a dark overarching concept. Listeners approaching the music for the first time could be forgiven for assuming this was the work of an emo or industrial band. This thematic approach continues on Black Sun, albeit in very eloquent and expressive terms. The album begins thus: ‘Under a spell of a random feeling/Weak, agitated, momentary breathing’. Black Smoke finds the Spaceape wandering a desolate landscape, ‘seeing heavy black smoke ahead’. Even the sound of his voice helps set a tone of murky oppression and danger. This is a world of obscure threats and bodily fluids.
The most successful aspect of this project is how brilliantly the music provided by kode9 complements the Spaceape’s words. The beats are impressively detailed throughout – intricate and captivating, showing substantial evolution in kode9’s production since Memories Of The Future. The frequent use of synth drones further enhances the cumulative sense of dread and fear. Yet, every so often there are bright glistening sounds – some chiming percussion on Promises for example, or the cut-up vocal samples on Neon Red Sign. Sometimes there are brighter chords in higher registers. Whilst there may be little positivity in the words, the music offers occasional flashes of humanity. Perhaps this is a hope that the dystopian vision can yet be transformed into something better – a disaster idealism.
So, in spite of the heavy atmosphere, Black Sun is actually pretty accessible. Am I, one of the album highlights, is immediate and insistent, its series of confused questions giving way to a central demand for clarity (‘I need a wrong or right/need a black or white/cuts straight down the middle like a surgical knife’). This is striking and harsh but also visceral and exciting.
There are some subtleties that help Black Sun stand out as very distinct from its predecessor. Spread throughout the album are some curious instrumentals. The reworking of Black Sun suggests the influence of early Chicago house. It’s probably the closest this project will get to euphoria. Weirder, and perhaps more wonderful, is the disorientating, faintly nauseous Hole In The Sky.
Much of Black Sun seems to be about questioning perceived ideas and delving beneath the surface of reality. The Cure finds Spaceape pondering ‘is suicide a remedy?’ On Neon Red Sign, in the midst of violence and propaganda, he wonders ‘are we being deceived’? This could be interpreted as a murky world of drug paranoia, or it could be a response to possible political disinformation and spin. Either way, it has made for one of UK bass music’s most intelligent and consistent full length works.