Sept. 7, 2013
Guillermo Scott Herren keeps you slightly off balance, even before his music begins. With remixes for artists ranging from Daedelus and Amon Tobin to TV on the Radio, releases under four separate aliases, and three side projects attributed to the Barcelona-born musician, Prefuse 73 (more like profuse!) is merely one—albeit the primary—incarnation of a clearly multi-faceted character. So, where does one even begin? The answer: with One Word Extinguisher.
When I arrive at The Crocodile for his Seattle show, earlier this month, I speak with a few early birds about Herren‘s work. The consensus among them is clear; Extinguisher is what they came for. Few seem capable of naming anything since the 2003 release. Of those who can, the enthusiasm peters out until the conversation returns either to Extinguisher, or how the show tonight is “gonna be dope!” Even ten years later, this groundbreaking album—half hip hop, half a deep-seated reveling in crystal textures, righteous samples, and layered electronic cuts spliced just so—is a seamless soundtrack of raw abstraction riding beats that easily carry one through all 23 tracks. Present is the order and chaos that one might expect from a David Lynch film: warm, creepy, and (as one reviewer said about Lynch’s Inland Empire), “brilliant…I think.” betterPropaganda ranked it as #2 in their list of the 100 best albums of the decade. So yeah, think challenging and rewarding. There’s no question that One Word Extinguisher has influenced a generation of popular artists today.
Though Herren sometimes performs with a full band, it’s just him up there working his magic tonight. He seems to know which tracks to play and which to leave out of his live set. There are even a few dancers at the front, and those of us from Seattle know how rare that can be in this city; especially, to so-called IDM. Suddenly, he cracks open my reverie with a DJ scratch that takes me way back. Instantly, I’m remembering the time that my friend showed me that carwash music video for “Perverted Undertone.” Y’know, the one where the revolving camera captures the antics of a few friends as the automated scrubbers and dryers do their work. It felt like a day in the life soundtrack, maybe to some lost Richard Linklater scene from Slacker. I loved it, but years went by before I heard about Prefuse 73 again. In a way, Herren hasn’t shined as bright since. Throughout the following decade, RJD2, Flying Lotus, Nujabes, and Teebs have all made their impacts on the scene, some with styles similar to Prefuse 73‘s hip hop sound, and others diving further down the rabbit hole of glitch. But that’s not to suggest Herren has been out-competed. Hard drive space is not a limiting factor, after all.
No, the consensus seems to be that One Word Extinguisher has become teflon-coated, untouchable by any other artist. Unfortunately, this rule seems to apply to Herren‘s own subsequent efforts, as well. They just haven’t inherited that perfect combination of time, place, and mastery.
Take his 2007 bonus album Interregnums, for example. Airy and often melancholic, it can be difficult for a listener to find anything to bite into. This is not an album for head bobbing, and it reminds me of some of Trent Reznor‘s projects that operate towards the fringe of what his fan base will tolerate. But, this is where brilliance often lies, and Herren seems to understand that acutely in one Youtube interview:
“I respect the idea of people taking a chance with their music and taking a chance against what is…pre-forecasted…and then just taking a complete detour…just coming with something completely beautiful and out of this world.”
The problem is that, if Interregnums is brilliant, it’s a brilliance relegated to “bonus” status, while the main album, Preparations, supposedly steals the show. Maybe, maybe not. Preparations tosses out some clever hits, like “Class Of 73 Bells (Featuring School of Seven Bells),” but mostly panders to expectations, while barely meeting them. Interregnums, for what it’s worth, could make a good David Lynch soundtrack.
As his live set continues, I realize that you really can get lost to this music in a carwash. I can’t tell which track he’s switched to, but I feel palm fronds, fabricated from metal, brushing and smashing against each other. And, just when I begin to feel overwhelmed by the buzz, click and sizzle, the hip hop roots are thrown in again as an anchor. With such an eclectic montage cast together, I wonder if this is what the inside of a fabergé egg would sound like. Some of the cobbled synth samples remind me of past DMT trips. “This must be the stuff that 21st century physicists bump while arriving at new theories,” I muse. It is thoroughly enjoyable, even though the house isn’t packed. Herren salutes the crowd and his core fans seem to get what they came for.
How much of each of his albums he played, I can’t be certain, but it seemed to center around his famous and catchy percussive loops, rather than the more ethereal, or “obnoxious” tracks from his oeuvre. Of those, I’m referring to cuts like “No Origin” from Security Screenings (2006), which Herren claims is not a “real” album. I know. You might call that pretentious, if you were to put out a real opinion. Screenings spun off plenty of moderately positive reviews, though they may not have been real reviews.
When Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian arrived in 2009, one reviewer labeled it as music to cheat on your partner to in the back of a seedy bar. Most of the tracks are only a minute long, demanding a chronological play and giving very little in return. Some of the tracks feel like they could go somewhere, but then they dive into their own navel and disappear from view. The Only She Chapters debuted two years later, utterly confusing his fan base about his intentions. This is not to imply that the album is not worth a listen–It absolutely is–though you wouldn’t know that it was made by the same artist. Featuring Zola Jesus, among other evocative female vocalists, Herren is crafting something new here. He doesn’t interrupt himself as often, the burnished voices are given a longer leash to soar, and it piques the curiosity. Where is Prefuse 73 going next?
Right now, Herren continues his West Coast tour. Earlier this year, he announced his new record label, and the first release is a collaboration between himself and L.A. Producer/Brainfeeder affiliate Teebs. Looks like a potent collab.
Whatever else can be said about Herren, Prefuse 73 has bricked together a lighthouse that shines forth still, outlining new channels to map and old standards to surpass. It’s entirely possible that the furthest illuminated point, once plotted and analyzed, will reveal Herren himself, busy on the next beacon. Either way, the sounds of Prefuse 73 start at the place most music stops. They’re complex; playful; at times, profoundly moving–just begging to be experienced directly. So remember, always know where to quickly locate your Extinguisher.