February 19, 2005

Prefuse 73 "Surrounded by Silence"

Any avid reader of this site can tell you that we love the music of Scott Herren, an expatriate currently living in Spain who goes by many aliases, but is most widely known for his work under the name Prefuse 73. Herren’s latest Prefuse album, Surrounded by Silence, has been the subject of controversy ever since it was leaked onto various file-sharing services months ago, much to his chagrin. Critics and fans have run the album through the wringer, claiming that it’s not as good or innovative as his previous work and that its emphasis on collaboration comes at the expense of cohesion and intimacy. While I can understand the basis of these criticisms, I still think they’re a bit unfair. Does Silence live up to the one-two punch of 2003’s One Word Extinguisher and its companion Extinguished? Well…almost. However, saying Silence is almost as good as Herren’s previous work is like saying that Deerhoof’s Apple O’ is almost as good as Reveille. In both cases, the artists have set the bar so high for themselves that even if they miss it by a couple of inches, they’ve still earned your money two times over.

Silence begins in almost the exact same manner as Extinguisher, with two tracks that insult biters and fluffy mainstream artists. Opener “I’ve Said All I Need to Say About Them Intro” doesn’t hesitate to trot out all the trademark of Herren’s production style: rapid and intricate rearrangements of vocal samples, stuttering drum programming, flatulent bass lines, squealing synthesizers and entire chord progressions lifted from obscure jazz records. The second track, “Hide Ya Face,” is a collaboration with Def Jux figurehead El-P and Wu-Tang’s resident emotional train-wreck Ghostface Killah. The sentiment voiced in the chorus --- “Just ‘cause the radio will play you doesn’t mean that you’re great” --- is frighteningly similar to that voiced on Extinguisher’s second track “Plastic.” People who claim that Herren’s repeating himself can use these tracks alone as evidence, and the 19 tracks that follow aren’t exactly radical departures either. However, we at Mundane Sounds have no problem with getting more of the same. Does the music on this album sound dated? Never. Can anyone else do this kind of music better than Herren? No. Does Herren match or exceed the quality of his previous work? Most of the time.

Herren made this album with two goals: to emphasize his hip-hop roots and to give his music new life by collaborating with artists from many different genres. Ironically, his collaborations with hip-hop artists achieve varying degrees of success, and the best one doesn’t even boast a marquee name. “Now You’re Leaving” features the heretofore unknown-to-me Camu, a rapper who switches from a tongue-in-cheek singing voice to a flow as mellifluous as Tupac’s. His ruminations over a dying love affair would have fit well thematically with the lovelorn laments on Extinguisher, arguably the first IDM album ever made about a breakup. This song is the closest that Silence comes to having a feasible radio hit. Aesop Rock delivers a terrific performance on “Sabbatical with Options,” switching from surrealist spoken word to airtight rapping to vituperative ranting at the drop of a dime. He speeds up his flow to keep up with Herren’s rhythmic triplets, achieving a synergy with the beat that the album’s other hip-hop collaborations lack.

Beans delivers a criminally brief but hilariously perverted rap on “Morale Crusher,” but his double-tracked voice simply overwhelms the beat until no traces of Prefuse can be found. The album’s absolute nadir is “Just the Thought,” the only song on Silence in which both Herren and his collaborators fall below par. Wu-Tang MCs Masta Killa and GZA deliver performances that sound both phoned in and off beat, and Herren’s backing track sounds like third-rate RZA. In fact, this song is so bad that I’m willing to bet that if it wasn’t on the record, its rating on Metacritic.com would be at least 10 points higher. The fact that Herren shelved a collaboration with TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe to make room for crap like “Just the Thought” is a crying shame.

Herren’s collaborations with artists outside of the hip-hop sphere fare better overall. His two tracks with Tyondai Braxton are both excellent. Braxton’s distorted guitars and wordless sighs mesh perfectly with Herren’s beats on the inaccurately named “Ty Versus Detchibe.” The song ends with a section in which the drum machines completely lose track of meter, producing a total free jazz meltdown that would do Tyondai’s father (legendary saxophonist Anthony Braxton) proud. On “Mantra,” Herren makes the wise decision of leaving Braxton’s voice unaltered, as Tyondai’s gurgling, hollering and beat-boxing is spastic and disjointed enough to render any further digital manipulation unnecessary. Herren’s two collaborations with Claudia Deheza, vocalist for unremarkable shoegazers On!Air!Library, work because Deheza’s breathy sigh is tailor-made for his vocal cutups. If she weren’t in the studio with Herren, he’d have found a voice out of some unknown bossa-nova record to run through the wringer anyway. The best collaboration on the album, hands down, is “We Got Our Own Way,” which features Blonde Redhead vocalist Kazu Makino. The track glides on junkyard percussion, pretty flutes and Kazu’s eternally high and yearning croon. It’s a slice of forlorn art-pop so perfect that an entire album of Herren/Makino collaborations with render the last two Blonde Redhead albums obsolete.

The few songs that Herren does on his own not only serve as nice palate cleansers between collaborations, but also give the album the pacing of a well-constructed mix tape…which is probably how he intended it. The transitions may be a bit more jarring than on previous albums, but unlike Extinguisher, Silence wasn’t meant to hang around a central theme. I’m assuming that Herren has moved on from his last relationship, and he doesn’t feel the need to wear his heart on his sleeve anymore. If anything, I think that the people who accuse this album of being incoherent and impersonal were hoping more for a continuation of Extinguisher than they were of a genuinely groundbreaking record. Silence isn’t that record, but I’m willing to bet that the ideas scattered across these 21 songs will lay the groundwork for Herren’s next real masterpiece.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.prefuse73.com
Label Website: http://www.warprecords.com

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