Surrounded By Silence
Ok, so apparently Scott Herren has taken people to church with ‘Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives’ and ‘One Word Extinguisher,’ the critical rapture emerging after both releases absolutely monolithic. Seldom have I seen the word ‘spiritual’ used so often to describe abstruse and secular music, much less the divine aura bestowed upon Herren himself. That his latest effort wasn’t as good as the previous two is of no doubt, neither by me nor the critical world in general. But the heights from which it has fallen has been phenomenally exaggerated, leading to the collective exhalation of disappointment you witnessed upon its release. I never viewed Herren’s work as a sign of his artistic apotheosis, and consequently don’t consider ‘Surrounded By Silence’ his heavenly descent.
The first thing you notice is the myriad of guest appearances on the album—featuring everyone from Beans to The Books, Camu to Kazu Makino—and how this spattering may occlude the glitch-hop craft you so loved. Though excessive, I don’t consider the guests to be somehow egregious or a poor red herring to a lacking instrumental canvas. ‘One Word Extinguisher’s’ success came from its amazing fluidity, compactness and the rapid synergy of sundry, normally aggravating elements into a smooth surface. ‘Surrounded By Silence,’ however, smartly doesn’t want to replicate the sentiment because 1.) it’d be a fucking mess with vocals and 2.) the only way a harmony could emerge with vocals of any sort is if the instruments eased up a little. We saw him attempt this a while ago with Diverse and Mos Def on ‘Wylin’ Out,’ so the ubiquitous disappointment here is pretty questionable and, I suspect, somewhat affected.
For the most part Herren succeeds in managing the sundry elements deftly, and his haphazard mash-up of guest stars means that, more often than not, the stars themselves have to comport to a Prefuse beat than vice versa. Check El-P and Ghostface Killah on ‘Hide Ya Face,’ led by a flute sample and the rappers’ entirely complimentary styles. Aesop Rock’s performance on ‘Sabbatical with Options’ gives the track a somber, far more intimately reflective mood than the beat could ever betray alone. Camu’s performance on ‘Now You’re Leaving’ and Beans on ‘Morale Crusher’ prove to be the best, both replacing the somewhat flatter glitch terrain with nice vocal inflections and particular cadences. On the flip side GZA’s and Masta Killah’s performances on ‘Just The Thought’ come off as underwhelming and undeserving of the admittedly rudimentary beat laid out for them.
Another vocal tract Herren uses is the mergence with actual vocalists, but this is to a somewhat mixed effect. Kazu Makino (of Blonde Redhead) is exceedingly fit for ‘We Got Our Own Way,’ her ruggedly sculpted voice suiting the slow tempo and hushed horns that adorn the track. ‘Pastel Assassins,’ however, sounds like an ‘Apropa’t’ B-Side, Claudia and Alejandra Deheza evoking the same Catalonian cool that predominated on that album. ‘Mantra,’ strangely enough, proves to be the most original mixture, an a-cappella vocal sample cut up and down, left and right as though it were beaten to an interesting and, dare I say it, humorous effect.
‘Surrounded By Silence’ does still exercise Herren’s instrumental glitch-hop pedigree; a very significant bulk of this collection is standard-bearer Prefuse (‘Ty Versus Detchibe,’ ‘Expressing Views is Obviously Illegal,’ ‘Minutes Away Without You’). But because the vocalists sandwich the instrumental pieces, they often sound tepid or torpid, pulling themselves for the entire length of the song without so much as a flash of the same élan of ‘One Word Extinguisher.’ They aren’t bad, just simpler than what we expected.
It’s possible that I may have just been blind to the seraphs and muses that helped him cut and scratch his nearly perfect 2003 opus—and still leave filling leftovers with ‘Extinguished’—but I find more comfort in my musical atheism than this superfluous religious pronouncement. Your estimation of how far ‘Surrounded By Silence’ has fallen is contingent upon the falling point. Should you paint Herren into some holy corner—the same corner that DJ Shadow’s ‘Entroducing’ and RJD2’s ‘Dead Ringer’ were before their returns were declared disappointments—then ‘Surrounded by Silence’ will be lackluster and, at worst, pitiful. But his music, like any other’s, is between good and bad, not supernal and human. This latest may not be the triumph we expect, but neither is it the tragedy it’s repeatedly depicted as.
Release date: March 22, 2005
Label: Warp Records
Rating: 7.6 / 10
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