Gaslamp Killer - Breakthrough FACT review

Available on: Brainfeeder LP

As FlyLo presumably intended when he first named his label, the old grey matter has become integral to the Brainfeeder aesthetic since the imprint’s genesis in 2008. Specifically, the label has dedicated itself to exploring the mind. Convoluted, labyrinthine and electrical-nervous, much of Brainfeeder’s output sounds how you imagine the mind would, like an aural CT-scan. Indeed, empowered by the hyper-layering possibilities of digi software and blessed with the byzantine cognition of a jazz player, theoretically FlyLo has done more than any other musician, alive or dead, Autechre and Aphex included, to really capture the structures of inner space.

Well if when ‘inside the machine’ FlyLo sees interstellar spaceflight and glorious horizons, and the mind is a sanctuary, then what is The Gaslamp Killer if not Brainfeeder’s fear centre – in throbbing, overloading crisis. An increasingly wired, obsessive and disturbed figure in recent interviews, seemingly tormented by thoughts and ideas that will never harmonize or resolve, when you then hear William Bensussen’s music it seems entirely plausible that his tumultuous debutoffers a more or less unmediated projection of the man’s psyche. Aside from anything the Angelino is far too vehemently bullshit-averse to affect a pretence. But regardless, quite simply the music sounds exactly how the self-confessed “raging, angry, neurotic, Jewish fuck psycho” comes across in conversation: relentless, overloaded with information, philosophical and, y’know, convinced that the world is on the verge of total annihilation. More than that, though, the impression you get from Breakthrough is that of a psychological hallucination.

Couched in a delirium of stuttering glossolalia, splintered samples, turntablism and tape-echo, Breakthrough travels the slipways between psychedelia, noise and the by-now distinct sound of the LA beat scene. The final product is a peerless depiction of a collapsing mind, and further affirmation that beat-making is far from just ‘hip hop without the vocals’ – an acutely expressive art form in its own right. The tracks are barely holding together and are made surrealistic with a multitude of bizarrely mismatched elements. It’s harsh with a scree-blasted grain, which renders the tracks both eroded feel and claustrophobically full – airless. Meanwhile, the sound is discombobulated further by off-kilter live drum patterns – a rhythmic sophistication which is notably what has always distinguished the LA beat scene from the kindred alt label Def Jux, and its similarly dark, grungey take on hip hop.

As on Bensussen’s prior EP’s (Death Gate and the aptly named My Troubled Mind), Breakthrough blends analogue electronica with Middle-Eastern sounds, frequently employed in the most menacing way possible, which soon evokes a foreboding geopolitical frisson, or something like the meeting of old world superstition and Western technophobia. Crackling radio interference transmits over feverish pungi and wailing tambura like Marine comms flying around the airspace over Basra.

That said, however much the sound-of-the-Bazaar instrumentation imbues a material feel, you never quite shake the sensation that the whole album takes place in the abstract – merely another tendril of Bensussen’s consciousness. It works to intimate the secondary idea that exploring your own damaged psyche means travelling to a foreign land, which by Bensussen’s estimations is an endeavour as exhilaratingly exotic as it is dangerous.

However, while often unreal-feeling the tracks are too acoustic, too tangible, to offer an easy way out in the form of fantasy; the denial of reality. Because after all, in real life mental illness is a quotidian, asphalt -coloured thing. It’s as real as tax. Breakthrough, for all it’s wiggy mysticism, is crumbling like old concrete and sourly metallic. Its a bombed out aftermath-zone of the mind. Oh, and the beats are fucking killer from beginning to end.

In terms of its complexity and level of skill on display Breakthrough is a big step up for Bensussen. ‘Flange Face’ merges guitar feedback with industrial drum sounds and fatalistic Eastern strings – ethno-core, if you like, cut to the system-failure rap-punk of Death Grips. A similar track, Asian Dub Foundation meets Flowers Of Romance-era PiL on ‘Critic’, written in memory of Broadcast’s Trish Keenan, while ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ is a Zack-Hill esque drum track with a burden device like John Cale’s ostrich guitar turn on ‘Venus in Furs’ . Unlike when, say, Caspa does ‘Middle-Eastern’, here the end product is both alive and lived in. Partly for the fact that, without losing any of the power, the low region employs organic Turkish instruments – tension-building drone instruments` and elephantine woodwind – rather than buttons-pressed bass drops.

Elsewhere, ‘Meat Guilt’s bass’n’snare prowl assumes the foot-dragging gait of a killer, while its dub-tricks and a barbaric sine-wave recall Kevin Martin. If, that is, K-Mart lived out of a neon-sizzling kibbutz in downtown Cairo. ‘Seven Years of Bad Luck For Fun’, meanwhile, makes like DJ Shadow via These New Puritans, but adds groaning-ghosts electronica, a crazed kazoo and the sound a buzz-saw makes at it’s coming out the other side of your calf bone. The sound effect is like a painful liberation for Bensussen, cutting through the swampy mix, and the fog in his head, so very beautifully. But it’s Daedalus collaboration ‘Impulse’ that impresses the most. Imagine exploded chiptune spreading radioactively through sandy back-streets and night-vision air: all hi-tech chaos and horror with a carpeting Merzbow-ian wheeze sporadically coming together with virtuoso scratching.

Sometimes there’s relief for the 30 year old in the form of weedy 60s psyche jams – groovy hippy fare featuring a beatific Gonjasufi, or melodious Moroccan wedding dance stuff. But more often than not, and increasingly so towards the album’s ghoulish last act, the producer is defeated by the pressure around his skull, and the swarming within. The last words you hear, on closer ‘In The Dark,’ are “This is the way the world ends” as sung by a boy over an unnervingly resigned brass quartet.

At which point you might ask what the fuck Bensussen’s problem is? Apart from very possibly the effects of long term drug abuse, if reports are anything to go by. Well, if you want to get a bit subtextual, ‘Mother’ centres around a recording of Bensussen’s old dear recounting his early childhood, explaining to him that “from a young age you always loved music and music loved you”…or in other words, music was his fate. Which would be lovely, only the evil sine-note beneath the sample subverts the sentiment. The longer the note continues after the sample has expired the more ominous is the message; music was his curse, his enslaver. Because not all compulsions are healthy. What nourishes you will destroy you, as some dead guy once wrote. Incidentally, the companion track ‘Father’ consists of little more than hellaciously contorted noise, but that’s for Bensussen’s shrink to analyse. Good luck with that.

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