By Russell Warfield
I occasionally open a review of a debut album with the observation that first efforts commonly fall under one of two umbrellas: a collection of tracks which carve out a sharply defined niche within fairly narrow parameters, or a scattershot flurry of wide reaching and often unrelated ideas. The Gaslamp Killer’s debut effort Breakthrough falls far above averagely into the latter category. The jarring juxtaposition between the throat clearing sample based intro and the Gonjasufi guesting ‘Veins’ lays this album’s cards out on the table in plain sight from the off. There’s no obvious progression from track to track, nor any central framework which Killer seems keen to return to – other than rich inventiveness, dark claustrophobia, and menacing beats.
One of the reasons for the lack of any unifying thread becomes obvious just by looking at the tracklisting: the sheer amount of guest collaborators across these seventeen cuts, most of which from Killer’s Brainchild label. As a result, Killer – whether he likes it or not – has his hand forced into radically reconfiguring his approaches to suit the strengths of his guests on a track by track basis; providing the requisite drop in rhythmical focus to extenuate the low burning growl of Gonjasufi on ‘Veins’, while having to up the overwrought intensity of texture to meet the drama of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s swooping violin performance on the fabulous ‘Flange Face’.
But that’s not to say that Killer isn’t spending half his time gleefully playing switch-up on his listener just because he can: Eastern influences exploding out of nowhere, dropping in spoken word interludes from his mother, and even offering up the infamous ‘F-word’ exposition speech set to Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ – all moves which kill any musical patterns before they have chance to properly take root. It’s as if Killer – whether you wish to take this as a compliment or a criticism – is wilfully disrupting the momentum of his own record; actively resisting any set aural conformity, and ending up with a record which – for all of these reasons – ends up sounding a lot more like a hyper-virile mixtape than a cohesive LP.
If forced to pick one thing which unites these tracks, though, it would undoubtedly be Killer’s beats – the aspect of his sound which is also his most exhilarating. Because what’s most exciting and arresting about Breakthrough is its keen use of live beats provided by Killer himself, and while they peel back from time to time for brief interludes, their constant resurfacing provides the much needed centre around which its ideas can stay in orbit – just about. Pumped so high and viscerally into the mix, the beats – despite being organic – somehow become even more disembodied and inhuman than anything programmed or crate plundered could ever hope to be. And so while Breakthrough doesn’t quite end up being one of those albums which paradoxically draws cohesion from its incoherence, The Gaslamp Killer’s alchemic methods of turning organic and live instrumentation – particularly in the rhythm section – into overwrought and menacing textures of bionic futurism is more than enough to make this collection of disparate ideas completely compelling from beginning to end.