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There’s no ignoring the circumstances behind Kode9’s Nothing: recorded following the passing of close friends DJ Rashad and Spaceape, it’s a growling, menacing record, the sort of psycho-spiritual purge no subsequent contextual framework can subsume. The idea that this is a record about a futuristic hotel devoid of people is cool, but it ultimately only serves to add another layer of meaning. With that in mind, while a Kode9 album at the intersection of footwork, trap, grime, jungle, and dubstep would usually make for a great opportunity to pontificate on genre, in this case that all feels secondary. The dance music ideas at play here are the means to an end, rather than the main topic of conversation.
That topic, death, is an uncomfortable one, and so most of the press surrounding Nothing has tip-toed around it. The heart of this record steadfastly resists words, and that resistance is a strong reminder of how adept Spaceape was at translating Kode9’s sonic concepts into spoken language. His absence makes it harder to speak on in more ways than one. Thankfully, Kode9 has a well-earned reputation as a sort of dance music superbrain, although anyone who’s spoken with him knows that’s only part of the story, and so technical details like tempo, influences, and genres make for easy entry points. However, even these topics play into the album’s sense of alienation and loss: the 150BPM no man’s land the album hovers around doesn’t overlap with much anything out there these days, and Nothing’s tracks are almost obstinate in avoiding contemporary clichés in both grime and footwork, let alone dubstep. Who writes an album about the future’s abandoned hotels? Someone who doesn’t much care to be around people at the moment and who’s very much in his own bubble.
But while real life events give Nothing its soul, influences, and ideas give the record structure. Starting as a dark, lurching affair, Kode9’s need for speed soon forces the record to embrace at least a semblance of light, and while it’s easy to parse the beats like tarot leaves, searching for clues about dance music’s future, Kode9’s chords and pads are just as important. The record is full of queasy, off-kilter melodies that link Nothing to previous work with Spaceape, alternating between an on-edge, paranoid grit recalling our present dystopia and the sort of bright, dopamine soaked overload promised by now outdated visions of the future. In short, it’s equal part body-horror, mind fuck and drug trip, yet even the album’s take on “the future,” probably the closest anything here comes to a dance music trope, doesn’t quite fit in with the usual narratives. While the Internet is begrudging our lack of flying cars and hoverboards, Kode9 seems equally preoccupied by how and why our present recalls 90s cyberpunk anime, or Metalheadz jungle. Or perhaps, why it fails to recall them.
On one hand, Spaceape is sorely missed on Nothing, but on the other that’s alright. While it’s initially off putting to hear Kode9’s tracks without his booming, measured baritone, it’s a void Kode9 refuses to leave unexplored, and the record is richer and more nuanced for it. Likewise, while Kode9 has been an unflagging champion of the Teklife sound, Nothing avoids imitation footwork, instead synthesizing its parts into an entirely new beast. By the time 9 Drones fades into 10 minutes of static and silence, you’re unsure of whether to feel cold or elated… but you’re left thinking things might be alright, if a little darker.
Nothing is out today via Hyperdub