Available on: Self-released EP
The Spaceape was one of only a handful of MCs to forge a career in dubstep’s germinal years. That is, if you could call him an MC: Stephen Samuel Gordon’s flow, first heard pitched down and curdled with dread on mid-noughties Kode9 productions, has more in common with the gnomic pronouncements of beat poetry than, say, grime’s hyperactive chatter. In the last half-decade Gordon has kept his hand in, voicing the occasional track for the likes of Martyn and Burial as well as keeping a close working relationship with Kode9. But he’s never really capitalised on the considerable esteem in which he’s held by the listening public, and has always come across as a criminally underemployed talent.
Perhaps now we have an explanation as to why. With the release of Xorcism it emerged that Gordon has been fighting a battle with cancer for the past three years. After oblique references threaded throughout his recent work – most notably his contributions to Kode9‘s album Black Sun - Gordon has now made the tremendously brave decision to openly address his illness. This seven-track EP is the result: a searingly personal meditation on mortality, transformation and survival.
Musically, Xorcism is simple but supremely effective. Each track deploys looped samples of Haitian Voodoo music – dense, raucous barrages of percussion poised between jubilance and chaos – and little else. The effect is intense but rarely aggressive; the samples sit low in the mix, a restless backdrop over which are laid out scalpel-sharp observations on the mundane terrors and mystical truths found in suffering serious illness.
Gordon’s expressive range is broad, spanning from the lightning-quick delivery of ‘Your Angel has Come’ – sentences spat hurriedly as if Gordon is fleeing before the remorseless truth of the titular refrain – to the pensive poetics of ‘Spirit Of Change’. But the predominant tone is one of a man aggrieved by the hand life has dealt him. ‘On The Run’ sees Gordon lamenting the unattainable dream of ‘A wonderful life / Living in peace with a child and a beautiful wife’, as if the shock of confronting his own mortality has left him a refugee from his own existence, a kind of existential nomad. Later, he comments with gripping directness on the terrible impassivity of illness: ‘Afflictions can’t be bargained with / Reasoned with / Pleaded with’.
Shot through the record is an ambivalence towards a cure, a sense that Gordon is concerned less with defeating some insurgent pathogen than with reclaiming agency from the opposing forces waging battle over his flesh. ‘He Gave His Body Over To Science’ most viscerally depicts the curious horror of submitting to treatment (‘He said from now I’ll be compliant / No change of heart or acts of defiance’), the denial of common sense involved in relinquishing power to a force that invades you and dehumanises you (‘They lay him down / His mouth in a muzzle’) even as it purports to be your saviour.
Xorcism loses its way somewhat when it strays into more general pronouncements. ‘Up In Flames’, a vague incitement to rebellion, feels too unspecified, its rhymes a touch too laboured, to carry any real emotional weight. But for the most part Xorcism is a record of rare concision and profundity. ‘Palaces’ is perhaps its peak, a discussion of what it’s like to live under the ‘dark malicious cloud’ of infirmity. As Gordon describes it, the loss of health is primarily a loss of certainty – he says of his antagonist, ‘You never show yourself / Until I think I know myself‘ – and it’s an urgent, aggressive hunt for certainties that powers Xorcism; a record which contains more originality and insight in its 12 minute runtime than most artists manage across an entire LP. Here’s hoping that the followup, whatever it may be, comes under far, far less adverse circumstances.