Kraftwerk did it. Aphex Twin may have done it. Paul Oakenfold will never do it. In 2003, Atlanta-based glitch hop kingpin Scott Herren reached arguably the peak of electronic music: he used computers to touch emotions that no other music can come close to evoking. When Herren, working under his Prefuse 73 moniker, transmuted private loss and haunting, fractured love into One Word Extinguisher, he elevated himself into the pantheon of modern music. What’s more, he’s got enough skill to jump from production duties to production duties like the Harlem Globetrotters jump cities. So what the hell is left to do?
To call Surrounded By Silence a laurel-resting album would be fairly accurate. But remember, Herren’s laurels look and smell better than just about anything in the music world. The way Herren seems to freeze, melt and condense sound isn’t just indicative of his laptop alchemy, but of his pure nose for melody.
The album boasts a list of collaborators wild enough to grab the most jaded musician’s eyes (The Books, El-P, Masta Killa, etc…) and apparently humble enough to submit themselves to Herren’s often overwhelming monsoons of sound. For Silence, Herren tones down some of his grander, more swirling sound sequences to give his guests an easier musical backdrop. Prefuse makes the beats, the other acts get to play on them like kids on a swing set. Think of the album as a much classier, much artier version of the Neptunes’ compilation disc The Neptunes Present…Clones. Then again, Pharrell couldn’t in his wildest dreams create a loop of hand claps as feral as Herren did for “Ty Versus Detchibe”.
Prefuse 73’s work has, since his debut on Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, been self-reflective. With Surrounded by Silence, the same fast-burning IDM spectrum of plinks that appears on “Expressing Views Is Obviously Illegal” resurfaces on “It’s Crowded.” Some of his signatures are ethereal enough to defy description; you’ll find the same 20 microscopic hooks in all the cracks of the album. It’s amazing the way Herren can rehash the same hoops of music without ever sounding monochromatic; he’s the ultimate in cohesiveness.
If Silence has one trait to separate itself from the rest of Herren’s outstanding catalogue, it’s that ballot of artists who climb aboard Prefuse’s wild ride. Ghostface Killah and underground rap star El-P don’t so much flow over “HideYa Face” as they dogfight over warped sirens and laser beam whistles. Neo-post-punk act Blonde Redhead and their harem of slanted guitars, and dreamy vocals take the album’s most unforgettable track, “We Go Our Own Way” to a nirvana of Arabian micro-tones and smooth drums. Here Herren knows just how to tone down his digital gifts without dulling the song’s finish.
Struggling to balance the innate desire to show off his superhuman talent with the intermittent need for neater musical channels, Prefuse 73’s creative tension ultimately makes Surrounded By Silence just as impressive as One Word Extinguisher but less transcendent. Working with a crowd of artists this diverse is, of course, a test for any producer and Prefuse succeeds admirably. But Herren isn’t just another producer; Genius like this doesn’t need any company at all.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars