Dalek - Asphalt For Eden

by Amy Putman Rating:4 Release Date:2016-04-22

I've never been much of a board game person.  I find it hard to sit still.  Games of chance seem pointless, and resource management seems too much like a day job.  I firmly believe that anyone who enjoys playing monopoly is a lizard person.  Scrabble makes me more competitive than I am comfortable with.  I can't play Cluedo without putting on outrageous accents.  Cooperatives seem pointless, and viciousness upsets me in anything but Pétanque.  I find long rules explanations so tiresome that I glaze over and switch off, meaning I tend to appear ultra-thick, as opposed to the dilettante I am.  The songs in my head will always win out over descriptions of complex card movements.

Since most of my friends are fanatics, I often end up playing, with a loving resignation.  My soft resentment is no match for their enthusiasm.  Which is how, despite having little interest, I came across the tiny wooden pieces known as 'Meeples'.  These are colourful shapes used in several games as markers and currency, each with their own peculiar patterns of play.  The Meeples are shaped like gingerbread men in a vague representation of humanity.  It doesn't stop there, though: there are sheep (Sheeples); cows (Cowples); pigs (Peeples, beautifully reminiscent of Animal Farm); goats (Geeples); and many, many more.

Why am I telling you about tiny wooden animals - the final hallmark of the meganerds - when you came here to read about rap, arguably the coolest music genre?  Because I need you to understand what I mean when I say that Dälek are the Meeple of the music world.

They're not nerdy.  They're not bound by rules.  I'm pretty certain they aren't made of wood.  I guess there's an outside chance that, as you read this, they are spread-eagled somewhere, or that they are wearing a gingerbread man onesie, or something.  They aren't blue, or red, purple, or green.

They are, however, trying to straddle two music genres, legs akimbo, arms wide, balancing, wobbling wildly.  They are stiff and awkward in sound.  This album is very like those flat-sided figures; not properly three dimensional people; not fully formed.  They have limited depth, odd angles that don't quite fit together, and almost no attention to detail.  Their music is full of complex interactions that nevertheless produce a simple, wooden tone. 

I'm sure that some people will become absolutely obsessed with them but, as with board games, it is a fringe interest that takes considered exertion.  Dälek have produced an album that is far more of an intellectual interest than a musical one.  Unlike the childish glee of Sheeples or Peeples, Dälek's latest sound is the sort of acquired taste of durian or stinky tofu.

It is such a disappointment.  Like a fun social occasion devolving into a game of Pictionary, Dälek have historically produced great and important music.  I loved Abandoned LanguageGutter Tactics was a revelatory album, with a title song that crackled with energy and sex and cool.  Their first release, Negro, Necro, Nekros was incredible, original, startling, beautiful, powerful.  Their sound has always been hard and exciting.  It has made me want to wriggle my abs as I live a thousand lives in their potent words and inventive musical shifts.

Which is why Asphalt For Eden is sad, like a soggy sandwich on a bitterly cold beach.  Existing Dälek fans should steer clear and stay in the cosy bubble of existing opinions.  Don't open that door; don't let new Dälek in.  They've grown flabby and dull.  They've turned into self-righteous bores and musical accountants.

The first song, 'Shattered', was hopeful, if outdated.  The rhythm was good and drew you in with its nostalgic, late-early-hip-hop 1980's Bronx sound.  It was straightforward but pleasing, making me want to use phrases like 'mad cool', and drink Red Stripe from a can on a street corner, as I did in my teens when I discovered rap.  The lyrics were cyclically repetitive, which my housemate co-ears found irritating, but I rather enjoyed.  The only real problem with it was the heavy-handed moralising, which just seemed a little naff; not so much earnest as pompous.

Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the album.  I can see what they were aiming for, but the 'industrial' dissonant noise they used as backing was out of kilter with the rhythm of the vocals.  That can work well if done with flare and instinct.  In this case, however, it seemed unprofessional and lacklustre.  It reminded me of a kid playing around with the presets on a Casio keyboard.  My friend branded it 'the wheeze of a dragon's fart'.  All the skilful weaving of their back catalogue had been replaced by an almost disdainful scrapbook of sounds.  It felt effortful rather than talented, but lazy rather than produced, a combination that put me in mind of late night, last minute essay scrambles before a deadline.

Part of the problem is the balance.   The vocals needed to be more prominent.  Even in experimental work, they should lead any kind of hip-hop.  The joy of spoken word is the rhythm; the alacrity of the tongue; the timing of considered words.  These felt awkwardly pinned on and pasted over, as though Dälek wanted to make a pure noise album but hadn't quite been brave enough to go the whole hog and leave their signature sound behind.  The result was a scene in which a very angry Lilliputian was shouting at a full-size parking inspector with chagrin over an undeserved ticket; futile, frustrated, and tedious.

The noise they have chosen as their annoyingly foregrounded should-be-backdrop has potential - I personally find the use of dissonance and ambience quite exciting - but, again, it was left in an undeveloped state.  This made it feel cheap and grating, where it should have been a bold statement.  It is by no stretch of the definition 'industrial', and has lost all the vim and crunch of that genre.  The dissonance feels almost incidental rather than intentional.  The ambience comes as a bland wave, sacrificing any sense of motion, framing, interaction, support, or syncopation.

I fully support experimentation.  The last thing I want is for bands to be constrained by their success until they go stale.  I want bands to spend years in the studio, diddling and playing with all their ideas and options.  Experimentation, however, is as much about discarding the new that does not work as it is about embracing the fresh, inspired sounds that do.  It is no excuse for a lacklustre, immature album that sounds part finished.

To sum up, it feels as though the two halves of Dälek, which have for so long curled and intertwined and fit together to make a greater whole, like yin and yang, have stopped communicating and have drifted off in different directions into the chasm.  This album sounds as if it could have been made over distance, parts emailed to the studio and compiled later.  Asphalt For Eden is dialled in, strung up like an afterthought. 

Like those Meeples, Dälek sit in their well-earned position woodenly, as the world moves around them.  They are the markers of a great idea, but they are currently representations rather than realisations.  I have no doubt that they will continue to influence the moves around them but, if Asphalt For Eden is anything to go by, their time as tactical players is done.  In my opinion, they have been reduced by their misstep to pieces for others to use and progress.  I hope I am proven wrong.

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