So what to make of the new Prefuse73 album? I don't think I've listened to any other album as thoroughly and repeatedly as this one in preparation for a review. The thing is, all of Scott Herren's previous Prefuse releases have hit me straight away. I was immediately impressed by them, so had to figure out why the new one "Surrounded By Silence" wasn't giving me an instant thrill. Was it because my tastes had changed? Were Herron's beats just not doing it for me since my Grime conversion? Were the guest American MC's sounding old fashioned and complacent in comparison to all those hungry Eastend bovver-boyz/girlz who've become such a part of my life in recent times? The first thing to do was listen back to the old Prefuse records and see if I was still feeling them. Yup, "Vocal Studies And Uprock Narratives" still sounds pretty damn cool, as does most of "One Word Extinguisher". Then there's my personal favourite, the "Extinguised Outtakes", which even though purporting to be a collection of out'n'sods left over from the "Extinguisher" sessions, still blows my head off. It's almost like a HipHop equivalent of "The Faust Tapes" - similar to the Krautrock legends' own messthetic approach of editing together a whole bunch of spare studio experiments into a fast-paced kaleidoscopic rush which often hits peaks of unrestrained creativity that leave you giddy in the face of all the possibilities that fly past you.
Having been so thrilled by Herren's previous work, I was actually a bit irritated with myself for not 'getting' the new one straight away - and believe me I really did want to understand it. I think what attracted me before was the sense that Herren was coming at Hip Hop from the outside, twisting it in new disrespectful directions, working with unknown (to me at least) MCs and mutilating their rhymes with an impressive arsenal of Powerbook tricks - basically fucking Hip Hop in the ass and making something new and exciting from all the cliches of the genre. By contrast, "...Silence" features an impressive guest list, not least Ghostface, Masta Killa and GZA from the Wu-Tang collective. Whilst this is presumably a measure of the esteem with which Herren's productions are now regarded in the Hip Hop community, I personally find it a bit disappointing that he's now hanging with these heavyweights - it's like he's become legit. When Ghostface and EL-P spit rhymes over "Hide Ya Face", Herren seems to completely defer to their charismatic centre-stage presence, allowing their vocals to command proceedings without so much as a single glitch-edit. He's showing them far to much bloody respect. If the music was a bit more invigorating I could live with it, but all too often on this album Herren settles for an amorphous wash of sample-mush and beats that are simply too pedestrian to grab my attention. On "Pastel Assassins", Herron employs the not inconsiderable talents of sisters Claudia & Alejandra Deheza, who provide some delightful Stereolabish vocals. You can tell there's a really nice song in there somewhere, but Herren's backing music seems uninspired and unsympathetic (although the other track to feature Claudia, "It's Crowded", works loads better). Where before his arrangements seemed to skip excitedly they now just plod (a bit like Wu-Tang Clan records!). Admittedly, there's always a couple of directionless tunes on a Prefuse album, but usually they're followed by some chest-beating, boombastic thing to get the adrenalin going again. I used to get so much humour from Herren too, but by and large the twinkle has gone from his eyes. It maybe comes out in places, especially the 'interlude' pieces, but even the dark, sophisticated cover design seems to suggest that a new deadly seriousness has descended onto the Herren muse.
Occasional thrills can still be found though. "Just the Thought" keeps things simple and direct with an earthy breakbeat and eerie, affecting electric piano melody giving some much-needed imperative. "Now Your Leaving" is undeniably elevated by the velvet tones of R'n'B vocalist Kazu (should appeal to the Usher fans) and final cut "And I'm Gone", a collaboration with Trish Keenen of label-mates Broadcast, weaves a mesmerising spell although I must admit that the best bit is the second half, which basically sounds more like Broadcast than Prefuse73.
So anyway, having listened intently for maybe a dozen times, I'm still not in a position to say that I think this is a great album. I wish it was. As this is the first Prefuse album of the 'Gutterbreakz era', I'd been really looking forward to having an excuse to give out some respect to Scott Herren, but I'm still not feeling at least 50% of this record. But hey, I'm sure the next album will be fantastic....