It’s a relief when MC High Priest boasts that Anti-Pop Consortium are about to ‘awaken from that permanent nap’, as Fluorescent Black reboots like a mainframe computer after a power cut. Reunited after an ‘amicable dissolution’ in 2003, the New York quartet is back for a fifth album of IQ-busting rhymes and glitchy breakbeats. Ever since locking heads at a poetry slam in 1997, MCs Beans, M Sayyid, High Priest and producer Earl Blaize have been methodically rewiring underground hip-hop. After signing to Warp Records, their futuristic vision culminated in Arrhythmia in 2002, before they imploded in the wake of Antipop Vs Matthew Shipp – a collaboration with the avant-garde pianist.
So it’s safe to say APC’s comeback isn’t a commercial cash-in (Jay-Z’s capital is safe on the hip-hop stock exchange), but Fluorescent Black isn’t as wilfully cryptic as previous releases. It even opens with a punky guitar racket on -Lay Me Down’, but any fears of a N.E.R.D.-style reinvention dissipate along with the riffs and the beats kick in with the crew’s ‘paramilitary precision’. Lead single -Volcano’ stomps along like a Timbaland-does-dubstep block party, and -New Jack Exterminator’ is peppered with hyperactive scratching – there are plenty of hooks to hold up the record’s cerebral experiments.
Beans, Priest and Sayyid may be free-association masterminds and absurdist poets, but APC’s production has always been more dynamic than a 2D crackly backing track. Anyone at their Whelan’s show in May this year witnessed a hands-on tangle of laptops, synths, drum machines, samplers and pads, with the four transforming into a symbiotic beat machine. APC’s rhymes don’t hover above the beat – they’re embedded in a metallic mesh of scattershot drums, molten bass and electronic fizz.
As on the Arrhythmia skit -Tron Man Speaks’, the subject of the circuit-flesh interface is once again invoked on Fluorescent Black. -The Solution’ is a dystopian addendum to Kraftwerk’s romanticised Man-Machine thesis: ‘Bionic is the solution… enhancements will be permanent.’ The misfiring diodes and sine wave bass on -End Game’ has Beans evolving into an artificial intelligence, ‘designing programming language’.
In this hip-hop virtual reality, ’80s electro pioneers share a pedestal with the heavily mined soul and funk breaks of the ’70s. APC are on the less-trodden trail blazed by the likes of Man Parrish, Jonzun Crew and Afrika Bambaataa – note the vocodered vocals, industrial bass and whiplash snare hits on tracks like -The Solution’ and -Superunfrontable’. Snarly hardcore rave synths also ooze out of -C Thru U’and -Dragunov’, another homage to the New Yorkers’ dance music lineage.
But it’s the otherworldly sonic experiments that set APC apart. In the past they’ve used ping-pong balls, roaring elephants and opera singers to bypass melodies. This time we get a booming kettle drum onslaught on the appropriately-titled -Timpani’, arcade shoot-em-up laser beams on -Capricorn One’, and the cold mechanical hum of -Apparently’ is a paranoid wander through the ship in Alien.
On a lighter note, their new Big Dada label mate Roots Manuva appears in a puff of smoke to add his trademark stoned flow on the sleek techno number -NY to Tokyo’, rapping about ‘digital mayhem, digital warfare, reclaiming the art form’. It has a slight air of a phone-in caper, but there’s enough complementary wordplay to whet the appetite – a full-on APC vs Manuva collaboration is a mouth-watering prospect.
As on the apocalyptic -Human Shield’ before, APC once again go out in a hail of bullets on the closing track. Flourescent Black‘s self-titled final chapter flips over the cliched rap tropes of street talk and gangsta posturing when Beans boasts: ‘The power of a pen turned a verb into a killer.’ The track builds into a claustrophobic mix of organs, Spectrum computer bleeps and a swirling hive of virtual insect chattering, as the three MCs get lost ‘in the body of the beats’. When Priest announces: ‘It’s the new mathematics’, it feels like Anti-Pop Consortium really are the ones drafting a new hip-hop Blueprint – no matter what Jay-Z thinks.