DJ Spooky vs. Dave Lombardo
Drums of Death
he first person plural possessive pronoun "our" is occasionally used in lieu of an article in order to denote a certain universality. Writers such as Julian Barnes, Joan Didion, Wendell Berry and a handful of others have all been referred to as "our finest essayist" at one time or another, the implication being that we all benefit from their work, directly or indirectly, whether we know it or not, and we should experience a sensation of gratitude as we bask in their insights.
Dave Lombardo is our finest drummer. If not for his trailblazing work in Slayer alone (certainly worthy), then for his subsequent collaborations with artists as diverse as John Zorn and even Matthew Barney (seriously, he's on the Cremaster soundtrack). His restless nature and boundless talent make just about any project he chooses to work on worth one listen at the very least, and often a few more.
Paul "DJ Spooky" Miller is a trickier proposition. While just as relentless an innovator as Lombardo, his ideas often suffer from a lack of focus. His unfortunate habit of jotting down his convoluted musings on his own importance for whatever publication is willing to print them (and there are, inexplicably, many) invites the derision of any critic looking for an easy punching bag, an invitation which is frequently accepted. But buried beneath the post-this and meta-that still lurks an undeniable talent capable of producing top-notch work when he remembers to relax and have fun.
Drums of Death is a stroll down memory lane, in more ways than one. It speaks, first and foremost, of a time before the age of bland, whiny nu-metal bands, when the fusion of metal and hip-hop was a novel and daring concept. Rather than simply making a turntablist album with a live drummer (an intriguing idea in itself), Miller recruits an eclectic cast of characters to augment Lombardo and himself, including rapper Chuck D (remember him?), guitarist Vernon Reid (remember him?) and bassist/co-producer Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto (remember him?).
Chuck D appears on what are, essentially, a trio of covers of Public Enemy favorites. Lombardo lays down a pretty straightforward beat, while Miller builds a densely-layered fortress of sounds, a clear tribute to the classic Bomb Squad production on the old PE records. They're all decent enough, as is the cut with vocals by Dalek, presumably a nod to the future alongside numerous nods to the past. But the vocal cuts are ultimately just diversions; the real meat of the album is in the instrumental tracks, where the reins are progressively loosened on the drums, providing the album with its cohering theme.
The drums stay in check for the first few tracks, and one begins to wonder why Lombardo is the only guest musician to receive co-credit on the album cover. Apart from the occasional fill reminding you that you're listening to the original powerhouse of thrash metal, the beats could have been handled by any competent session player. But as the album moves on, the drumming grows gradually more aggressive, building to a density that matches and eventually exceeds that of the layers of samples.
On "Metatron" the guitars drift around in the ether while the drums start to get heavier. On "Kultur Kreig" the guitars shift to an all-out muted-strum metal mode, and the drums step up in response; the riff stays constant throughout the track, but by the end Lombardo is going nuts. On "Incipit Zarathustra" Miller's turntables and Lombardo's drums engage in a call-and-response game of one-upmanship for the first few minutes, then jam along together for a few seconds before Lombardo takes over completely and plays what essentially amounts to a two minute drum solo. By the album’s last few tracks, the fills outweigh the backbeats to the point where he's pushing fusion jazz territory.
Like many such collaborative projects, what looks good on paper occasionally gets stuck in theory-heavy genre exercises. But the good far outweighs the tedious on this one, making for a rewarding listen start to finish. Miller is the kind of artist who thrives on this sort of collective effort, and when it clicks he can make any tired combination of sounds (is there anything more played out than turntables and metal guitars?) sound fresh and exciting. Miller has the unique ability to unearth new ideas in sounds we may have dismissed as tapped out. I'm glad we've got him.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2005-06-09