An awful lot of history – and a lot of awful history, at that – has been corralled into the five years since Endangered Philosophies, the last official album from Dälek (pronounced “die-a-leck”, but you knew that, right?). The compression and rapid succession of era-defining events in late-stage capitalism may just be perception, an interpretation shaped by the immediacy of information and images in the world in which we now live. Maybe it’s true that the world has always been on fire, but these days we can film and re-watch every facet for our doomscrolling delight. Ideas are rapidly mutated and morphed, co-opted and shifted out of all recognition so that terms like ‘woke’ and ‘social justice warrior’ quickly reverse-transmogrify into insults in the culture wars that only exist when you label them as such (“Candyman…..Candyman…..”). But if there is one silver lining to all of this, it’s that hip-hop is in a really strong place in 2022, as it really grasps the mantle of being protest music.
Dälek have been shattering the agreed aesthetic for a long time, and truth be told not many of the messages here on Precipice are that different from their early releases from over 20 years ago. There’s no room for shifts in narrative when the same battles are still being fought, when the same social ills need to be highlighted – the hope is that you reach fresh ears with each new record.
In 2016, their line “I’m tying to breathe!” from “Masked Laughter (Nothing’s Left)” wasn’t a visionary prophecy about the fate of George Floyd, it’s just that George Floyd has always been there, he’s just been different people all along (the tip of the iceberg is here). There’s nothing new with the suffocation of people who find themselves as ‘minorities’, it’s just that when the world wakes up to the fact then people are damned just for caring. Friends, if you aren’t angry then you’re not paying attention. Dälek (producer Mike Manteca and MC dälek, aka Will Brooks) are angry, and Precipice feels urgent, angst-ridden, yet always controlled. Righteous fury comes with rational thought and action, not instinctive wrath.
“Lest We Forget” opens proceedings and is an elegiac and ethereal piece of drone noise. Its initial squalls of sound bring to mind the intellectual cacophony of Divide & Dissolve, but underneath the layers of noise reveal a melody buried deep. It’s like a submerged anthem, struggling above the weight of the world to be heard and fully understood. This instrumental track is largely the work of Manteca; it’s beautiful in its harshness and resplendent in its underlying sadness. It’s a heavy track, but when the drums kick in on the following “Boycott” things get turned up another degree of heavy that you didn’t think was there.
Precipice was started in The Before Times (pre-COVID, ask your folks what it was like) but the project was largely restarted to more fully reflect the anger and pain of recent years. The sonic template is equally as responsible for this feeling across the record as the way MC dälek spits his lyrics with impassioned venom. It feels like a record distilled with the tension we all felt during our separation from others, and the fears for a future world of community that was always unlikely to come about.
By the album’s midpoint, the swirling and disorientating noises are usurped by more traditional hip-hop elements, with repetitious licks and boom-bap-style drum machines taking centre stage. Even when Dälek essentially go back to basics, as on “Holistic”, there are still so many layers at play in the audio mix. On each listen you’ll pick out a different melody that was previously hidden, and this psychoacoustic approach to production stands them out from their peers. The reverse gated drums on “The Harbingers” add a nostalgic feel to the track, while simultaneously sounding like otherworldly, stilted breathing.
A dystopian, retro-futurist atmosphere pervades through every second of the record. Where billy woods’ era-defining masterwork Aethiopes looks back to highlight the injustices and heritage of those forcibly placed to the periphery of society, Precipice leans into the future whilst borrowing sufficiently from the past. It’s the aural equivalent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Vangelis score and rain-drenched streets of that future-envisioned neo-noir LA postmodernist dreamscape are all evoked here.
“Devotion (when I cry the wind disappears)” is the best example of this, with industrial beats underscoring a swell of noise that blurs and wraps around itself in glorious manner. It’s euphoric, whilst also offering little by way of optimism. The clanging drums are reminiscent of the harrowing nature of the clock in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, from which Scott borrowed so much. This, once again, highlights the cyclical nature of our existence – narratives don’t change all that much, it’s about regurgitating the same sad truths about how we let things come to be like this.
“A Heretic’s Inheritance” sees Tool’s Adam Jones make an appearance as he weaves a pensive, detuned guitar melody over fractured beats before several disparate but ultimately coalescing parts come in and out of focus. The extended instrumental intro adds a psychedelic feel to the album, a momentary respite from the all-too-real clarity of the album’s main drive. The track’s refrain of “I hold myself to a higher standard / I don’t give a fuck if your gods are angered” feels like the central message of the record, and perhaps of Dälek’s career to date – the aspiration to aim for higher, for better, for that which holds more worth at a spiritual and more visceral level.
The title track places humanity on the edge (“the precipice is stressing this / the situation tenuous”) as we walk the fine line between chaos and order, thraldom and redemption, with a whole range of topics in mind – the climate crisis, the rise of insular nationalist political ideologies, the cost of living. The irony of the juxtaposition of the need to aim higher and the destructive abyss that we are staring into is not lost on the attentive listener.
With Precipice, Dälek have produced an album that speaks to the times we find ourselves in. It’s focused, gnarly, and filled to the brim with lessons we would all do well to listen to.