How to describe this music? Not being a fan of industrial music, the closest I ever get being the vaudevillian shlock of Marilyn Manson, Trent Reznor is nothing but a name (and a cover by Johnny Cash) – on the flipside, Saul Williams is a lot of breathless praise, and much like Reznor, an artist I’ve never actually listened to before.
Industrial meets poetry, metal meets hip-hop, violence and politics – hold on a tick, isn’t that just Rage Against The Machine? Well, yes and no – there’s certainly no Tom Morello pyrotechnics here, and the polemic is a little more focused than the “look at me, I’m a lefty activist” rants of Zach De La Rocha, but there’s a monumental sound going on. Synths buzz, hum, and crackle, the beats leap about, never quite sure whether they’re meant to be organic or electronic, and Williams switches between singing, shouting, declaiming, rapping, grunting and moaning effortlessly, much like Serj Tankian (oh, look at that, I’ve just repped two of the guests on his last album – thanks, Wikipedia!)
But what of the songs? Well, the aesthetic seems to be freeform lyrics, where Williams focuses on his inner demons, regarding his pastor father, his views of the nation, of black consciousness, and of perceptions of both himself and the American nation. Sunday Bloody Sunday, a cover of U2’s seminal song, is the only non-Williams penned track, and barely works, except as a showcase of his singing ability.
The concept, of a form of philosophical, Superfly repping Ziggy Stardust – “Grippo King, philosopher, and artist… Don’t you call him by his name! White people call him ‘Curtis’!” as the title track calls him – freewheels between some Bomb Squad style backdrops (Tr(n)igger), more electroclash pieces, like NiggyTardust and Convict Colony, and frankly uncategoriseable things (DNA, Raw) that, at my most tentative, remind me of Gil Scot-Heron, if he was kicking out the jams today.
There are leftfield choices, like the dub of Scared Money, the weird string quartet/soul/clattering drums of Skin Of A Drum – whose chorus is the most beautiful moment on an album of fear, oppression, larger than life characters and aggression. It leads into its companion piece No One Ever Does, a slow burn torch song, that sets up the final volleys of the end of the album – The Ritual containing a rather standard bit of hip-hop braggadocio: “Bad luck, fucking with this black buck”, and other associated images.
Reznor and Williams decided to self release this: you can pay $5 (£2.4o, at time of writing) for a wonderfully crisp, clear, 320 kbps release from his website, or $0 for a 192kbps set of MP3s which sound as clear as a CD anyway, even on my good headphones. I suppose the bar has been set by Radiohead, but in all honesty, the proper indie scene has been doing this for a while – Hummingbiird’s last album has been free from their website for a year, to give an example.
The new release model, the unexpected production, the frankly better than expected flow and some stunning songs, at their core, bring me back to the first question: how to describe this music? I can’t divorce the music from the words, from Williams’ personality, no matter how important the industrial side of Reznor comes through here – what we have is the black Jack Kerouac (come on, it rhymed!). If that sounds condescending, then so be it: finally, a record in the hip-hop/rap paradigm that has actual poetry and isn’t obsessed with the ghetto and being “real”. Beat poetry is alive and well, and Saul Williams is taking us on a ride to the inner depths of his soul.
Key Tracks: Convict Colony/Tr(n)igger/Scared Money/Skin Of A Drum