By Gabe Meline
There's gotta be a medical term for the quick-flash split second that occurs between the sudden awakening from a jarring nightmare and the realization that the dream is over. That moment of confused, haunted disbelief that doesn't cause you to ask "Where am I?" so much as "What am I?" The moment passes, you remember the fact of your own existence, and everything's fine--but what's that split second called?
While it may not have a name, it does have a soundtrack.
A Heap of Broken Images is the stunning debut album from the Santa Rosa duo known as Blue Sky Black Death, and between the music contained therein to the cover image of a man desperately covering his eyes, it is as bleak and creepy as a jostling nightmare. It's also the most promising underground hip-hop production effort that has come across my turntable all year.
The timing is perfect. DJ Shadow is about to release his "hyphy" album, The Outsider, to a mass of soon-to-be disappointed fans, and a couple of unknown kids bake up the perfect successor to his groundbreaking 1996 debut disc Endtroducing. It's the album that a decade's worth of DJ Shadow fans have continually wished he would one day record--and that DJ Shadow himself probably wouldn't ever want to make in a million years.
In the wake of Endtroducing, a whole new league of atmospheric beatmakers stepped up to the plate, trying to swing at the glory gained by that album's grand slam. Naturally, as droves of substanceless replications are touted as the new thing, most of them have struck out and headed back to the bench. A few of the strong contenders--including Blockhead's Music by Cavelight, Rjd2's Deadringer and Dante Carfagna's Express Rising--have made the all-star team, and A Heap of Broken Images is its most recent recruit from the minor leagues.
One half of BSBD is 21-year-old Ian Taggart, who explains his early love of hip-hop by citing one of the first albums he ever bought: Nas' It Was Written. "I wish I could have a cooler answer," he admits, "like Paid in Full or The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, but, alas, I'm not that old. Can't front."
But Taggart, along with musical partner Kingston Maguire, has made an album that explores sounds well outside the boundaries of hip-hop, one that doesn't rock the bells so much as rattle and caress them into bulbous, resonant rumblings. Heard throughout A Heap of Broken Images are snatches of classical sonatas, movie scores, psychedelia, '70s prog rock and world music. "Pretty much everything," Taggart jokes. "In addition, we use live instruments: guitar, cello, violin, trumpet, bass and keys." It's one of the reasons he eventually focused more on production than MC-ing.
"No one's going to know that I love Neurosis, Godspeed You Black Emperor and then also DJ Premier, RZA, Mobb Deep and tons of other artists from hearing me rap," he explains, "but you might be able to hear all of that in our instrumentals. Plus, I'm not outgoing enough to rap. I think you've gotta have a certain personality for it."
In addition to the brooding instrumentals, A Heap of Broken Images contains a second disc of collaborations with over a dozen noted MCs, including Gang Starr's Guru, Jedi Mind Tricks' Jus Allah and Freestyle Fellowship's Mikah-9. A strong album on its own, this extra disc also solves the common problem of producers needing to prove their roots by marring an instrumental album with the out-of-place presence of an MC. "We felt that the cohesion was being compromised when we had Heiro rapping right after one of our instrumentals," Taggart says. "They just didn't mesh too well."
The immediate future holds more high-profile collaborations for the up-and-coming production team. Released this Tuesday is Blue Sky Black Death Presents the Holocaust, a pairing with Wu-Tang Clan affiliate the Holocaust. In the meantime, Taggart's keeping his mind open to new, malleable sounds for future projects--two of his favorite albums lately have been CocoRosie's eccentric, deadpan Noah's Ark and My Morning Jacket's dreamy, Neil Young-esque At Dawn.
"Any time I'm listening to something really good," he says, "I'm like 'Damn, I wish I did that.'"
As long as Blue Sky Black Death keeps creating eerie monologues made up of incongruous sonds, those interrupted nightmares will continue to have a suitable backdrop. You can take your chances, but I'm setting my alarm.