Kode9 & the Spaceape: Black Sun

Five years have passed since Kode9 & the Spaceape's debut album, Memories of the Future, appeared—a veritable lifetime in electronic music circles—so one approaches Black Sun, the follow-up from the South London-based duo of Stephen Gordon and Steve Goodman (aka Spaceape and Kode9, respectively) with both anticipation and a bit of trepidation, wondering whether the second effort can possibly match the high standard set by the first. It's a concept album in a somewhat loose sense, as the two concocted a science fiction-type story-line as a way of giving the album's material more cohesion; the story-line, incidentally, concerns post-nuclear survival and a drug survivors can ingest that would mutate them yet enable them to live on the irradiated Earth or remain drug-free but depart for “Kryon.” Fire crackle is an omnipresent sonic detail, but in this case the sound isn't intended as some nostalgic reference to vinyl but one that literally references the idea of a black sun having scorched the earth.

Shanghai-based soul and reggae vocalist Cha Cha (who first appeared with the group on the 2009 single “Time Patrol”) shows up on the opener “Black Smoke,” which, following a brief interweave of bright synths and tympani drums, re-introduces the macabre sound of the group's debut album in the form of Spaceape's ominous drawl (“Under our spell of our random feeling … Show me the evidence”), each dread-filled syllable fixated upon by his voice and given full weight. Her voice blends well with Spaceape's, adding fuel to the already burning flame, and, disturbing and hypnotic, the song is a powerful opener that bodes well for the rest of the album. Perpetuating the demonic mood, Gordon's distorted voice slithers across scorched and largely beatless terrain as synthetic sunshowers brighten otherwise dark skies in “Promises.” His poisonous flow is a relentless presence during the nightmarish “Am I,” where viral synths criss-cross in seeming battle formation as a synthetic bass pulse anchors a jittery breakbeat pattern. One breathes a mild sigh of relief in discovering “Love is the Drug” isn't an update of the Roxy Music tune, as that would seem too much a repeat of the reimagining the duo brought to their first infamous collaboration, a mind-melting cover of Prince's “Sign of the Times” (re-christened “Sine of the Dub”) that appeared in 2004 (though it must be admitted, the idea of such an update is tantalizing). It's instead a mutant house track featuring Cha Cha assuming the lead and Spaceape laying low, and once again the content gets twisted into unsettling shape when the vocalist intones, “Yes, this love is gonna tighten round your neck.” She also snakes soulful musings around Spaceape's creeped-out monotone ( “It's like you're waiting for a miracle to happen / It's like you're waiting for a universal pattern”) during “The Cure,” which also dazzles instrumentally in its fiery mix of skittish snares and writhing funk pulses. In the head-spinner “Neon Red Sign,” the crackle of the burning earth forms a base for the dub bass pulse, flickering hi-hats, funk beat convulsions, and the vocal flow of Spaceape and sensual accents of Cha Cha.

The album's central cut, “Black Sun (Partial Eclipse Mix),” arrives just past the halfway mark, bringing with it an uptempo house swing whose spirit contrasts markedly with the album in general. Despite a mid-song section that briefly arrests its groove, the track roars with an unrestrained freedom, and the bright synth smears that surface feel equally unconstrained. Compared to the surrounding cuts, “Hole in the Sky”comes across as woozy ambient filler, though even in its lesser moments Black Sun still sounds compelling. The synths exude an almost video arcade-level of brightness during the first part of “Otherman,” though one's attention is distracted away from it when Spaceape's mangled voice enters. Sounding like a requiem for a future age, the Flying Lotus collab “Kryon” takes us out on a rippling wave of crackle and analogue synths.

One concern I had prior to hearing the album was that the album would end up sounding eclipsed by albums that appeared in the time between the duo's two full-lengths, in particular efforts by Flying Lotus (Cosmogramma) and The Bug (London Zoo), not to mention much of the output released on Goodman's own Hyperdub label, such as King Midas Sound, Ikonika, and, of course, Burial. Not to worry: if Black Sun is slightly less stunning than Memories of the Future, it might simply be because the first album provided the first exposure to the group's sound and also because the second album while re-inventing the duo's sound in some ways consolidates it in others.

May 2011