Peter Holslin can’t think of anything funny to say.
Just as Philip Seymour Hoffman stole the show in countless movies, so too did the Spaceape bring life to classic dubstep tunes. A poet, vocalist and performer, the man born Stephen Samuel Gordon was best known for his ferociously singular voice—a chest-caving, barking, murmuring monotone, which he used to conjure “blinding lights of fiction” over the beats of luminaries like Kode9 and Burial. From his bewitching name down to his visceral verse, the Spaceape was a man of great mystique. To my ears he seemed to be no mere mortal but a kind of celestial force, beaming messages from the twilit studios of parallel futurescapes.
But, of course, Gordon was human after all. That became painfully obvious to me earlier this month when Hyperdub announced his untimely death. I realized that, while I knew much about the artist, I knew next to nothing about the man himself. Apparently he wore black-framed glasses, striped turtlenecks and furry winter caps. He had a wife and a six-year-old daughter. And for five years he’d been battling a rare form of cancer: neurolymphomatosis, which reportedly infiltrates the nervous system surrounding the neck and cranium. It wore the Spaceape down.
As a poet, the Spaceape had a gift for vivid imagery and repetitive, mantra-like phrasings. He uses both techniques to devastating effect on the new Killing Season EP. The five-track effort is Gordon’s final and most personal collaboration with Kode9. Released just days before his passing, it puts his mortality in stark relief. The synths are spare, dissonant and chilly, the beats disjointed and stripped raw. The Spaceape’s once-fearsome baritone sounds thinner than usual, yet over the anxious, dreamlike strains of opener “Chasing a Beast,” he still musters the will to fight, refusing the fatal advances of a “white magic woman” who visits him on his deathbed.
Whether it’s cancer or chronic headaches, one of the most horrible things sickness does is make you helpless. Your career aspirations, your romantic needs, your simple desire to drink a beer—you can say goodbye to all that, because the evil force colonizing your body is calling the shots now. Sure, you can negotiate and work around the limitations, but it rarely feels like you’ve got the upper hand. On his solo Xorcism EP from 2012, the Spaceape captured this painful process. In “Palaces” he took a fighting stance against his affliction (“I’m never gonna give you grace / I’ll stab you up in your fucking face”), but then he seems to cede ground on the next track, the calmly soul-crushing “He Gave His Body Over to Science.”
On Killing Season, the sense of imminent departure is palpable. Though he’s as razor-sharp as usual on the brooding, anthemic “Devil is a Liar,” that track eventually gives way to the agonizing elegy “Heart,” in which ghostlike voices flit across the stereo spectrum while the Spaceape ruminates on the frailty of man’s most vital organ. The Spaceape still shows a ton of vitality, but “Pictures on the Wall” paints a disquieting picture of his bodily state. Over a buzzy, pulsing synth, the vocalist describes being bed-ridden, hooked up to IVs, coughing, wheezing, growing ever more agitated at the hospital-friendly art posted up in his room—“egg-shell plasterboards infused with personality,” transmitting “subliminal relaxation as my anxiety fades,” posing the same subtle threat as those airplane oxygen masks Brad Pitt rails against in Fight Club.
I’ve always marveled at the Spaceape’s sonic landscapes. Sculpting words with his tongue, he’s navigated claustrophobic corridors of violence, paradox and beauty. But if his wisdom seemed to exist on a plane more elevated than my own, on “Pictures on the Wall,” disturbingly enough, I know exactly how he feels. The track makes me think of when my dad came down with breast cancer last year. He’d just taken on a prestigious job in a new city, but after rounds of intensive chemotherapy, he was too drained to do anything. When I visited him it felt like we were all prisoners, confined to beds, couches and plush recliners, assaulted by the ambient palliatives of satellite TV. Cancer may be a toxic force, but it’s also an agent of ruthless, defeating boredom.
On those hot summer afternoons, I got a taste of what it’s like to have your life hijacked by illness. A mix of frustration, anger and defiance festered inside and stayed with me for months, simmering on a barely perceptible heat. On Killing Season you can sense that same defiant anger in the Spaceape’s voice. It’s nothing overt, but on EP closer “Autumn Has Come” it helps give his voice a rough edge, powering the rhythm of his words, impelling him to “dance with life again,” even as he enters the middle phase between consciousness and passing. Stephen Gordon has always been a powerful and creative force, but never more so than when the end was so near.