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Review: Kode9 Mourns Loss While Embracing the Absence Left Behind on ‘Nothing’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: November 6, 2015
Label: Hyperdub

The most devastating swath of Kode9’s feverishly awaited full-length debut, Nothing, arrives at the very end. On ten-minute album closer “Nothing Lasts Forever,” intermittent shrieks and caws echo as if bouncing off wet concrete, the sounds of animals left in an abandoned zoo when every other person on the planet has been obliterated by an apocalyptic cataclysm. Then, suddenly, there is almost nothing: only the continuous, almost indiscernible scuffing of a tape reel left to unspool into eternity because there’s not one there to watch it anymore — until a sharp intake of breath ends it all.

If that sounds bleak, it is. Kode9 — a.k.a. London-based Glaswegian Steve Goodman, also the founder of storied record label Hyperdub, one of the original dubstep DJs/producers, and a published university professor of sound-affiliated studies) lost two of his label’s most seminal members last year. Beloved formative footworker DJ Rashad passed away in April; six months later, frequent collaborator the Spaceape (a.k.a. Stephen Gordon) — whose gravelly incantations became nearly inseparable from the producer’s subterranean booms and clicks — died following a battle with cancer. As its title proclaims, Nothing is about what follows such loss.

Even by Hyperdub’s standards — a 20-year lineage of beats birthed and incubated in London’s most soot-smeared corners (grime, dubstep) and Chicago’s windwept streets (footwork) — this is not a light record. If the monotone EKG beeps of “Autumn Has Come” closed out the duo’s last release together, 2014’s barren The Killing Season EP, Nothing is a continuation of that. Absence resonates through the album both emotionally and, in a nod to Goodman’s academic background, theoretically. “Shadows haunting shadows / There are elements of me,” utters the late Spaceape on “Third Ear Transmission,” reminding us of his absence on the only track on which he appears; and his ghost haunts “9 Drones,” essentially the same instrumental as “9 Samurai,” from their dual 2006 album Memories of the Future. His distorted voice scatters into separate sound waves as if coming through on a posthumous transmission from the “Notel,” the virtual building concept stamped upon Nothing’s cover. And “Respirator,” which unavoidably connotes images of the grievously ill and hospital beds, huffs with a pixelated facsimile of shallow breathing. A muted shriek, somewhere between evening crickets and a wailing siren, sustains the barest of the atonal melody’s tension.

Nothing’s other thematic concepts are a little more nebulous. The atonally pinging, ticking “Wu Wei” is titled after the Taoist idea of doing nothing, while “The Casimir Effect” refers to a somewhat complicated physical and philosophical concept: as two mirrors are moved closer together inside a vacuum (which, contrary to popular belief, is assumed to be filled with electromagnetic waves), they create a true vacuum between them. Between those walls closing in is Kode9, trying to hold onto the last particles of the deceased before they slip away.

Tags: Hyperdub, kode9