With a dense, stubbornly murky sound, Dalek has carved a specific niche among even the most eclectic of rappers, one that’s deep, dark, and unfortunately, increasingly narrow. For 10 years the New Jersey duo has been releasing material that would be difficult in any genre but for hip-hop seems positively otherworldly, with long, slow songs rife with instrumental breaks, industrial beats, and opaque lyrics. Yet as intriguing as this formula is, its shadowy depths have recently allowed little room for innovation, and with Gutter Tactics, their fifth album, the group threatens to grow completely stagnant.
Their last album, Abandoned Language, presented the same problem nearly two years ago, full of stamping beats and a shadowy feel that gave individual songs little room to breathe, resulting in a nearly uniform sludge. Gutter Tactics flows in the same way, still musically interesting but packed with thick dirges that slur together through a shared sense of industrial atmosphere. The production on most of these songs is fantastic, from the stand-up bass intro of “A Collection of Miserable Thoughts Laced with Wit” to the percussive attack of “Los Macheteros,” which recalls both shotgun blasts and heavy machinery—an appropriate juxtaposition for an album primarily concerned with violence and which sounds like a working factory. But compared to a bright spot like “Street Diction,” upbeat and alive with the sounds of ringing bells, these songs feel hopeless and relentlessly dreary.
The aural and lyrical theme of violence is connected by an insipid, if largely valid, political message, spearheaded by an opening soundbite from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that summarizes America’s roster of crimes and labels us a “terrorist” nation. Dalek seems to pride itself on keeping hold of its anger even as most other artists revel in Obama-fueled optimism. It’s well-worn territory, whatever the context, and even worse is the group’s insistence on employing bald rhetoric with little effort to make it easier to swallow. “Los Macheteros” is the worst offender, a potentially captivating song that devolves into a list of dates and locations and repetition of the names of members of the Boricua Popular Army, a Puerto Rican separatist group credited with attacks on both that island and the American mainland. This may have been intended to seem coy but instead plays as obvious and broad as Wright’s opening quote, and the tired political points they press are musically uninteresting and self indulgent, existing at the expense of the music itself. As they see it, new president or not, America is still a menace to the rest of the world. This will never change, and apparently, entrenched as they are in a morose pit of doom and gloom, neither will Dalek.