In recent interviews supporting Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, frontman Damian Abraham has said that now that the band have released their big rock opera concept album, there’s no going back. And that truth goes for tons of other bands: Once they make that giant record that strives to change the world around them, through action or mere observation, there’s no returning to making love songs or club hits. A band facing that truth is the Washington, D.C. DJ duo of Thievery Corporation. Their last album, 2008’s Radio Retaliation, saw Rob Garza and Eric Hilton take a swing at the deception and back alley dealings of the Beltway. Now, with Culture of Fear, the group step up to the challenges of being “necessary,” but in a completely new, interesting, and transcendental kind of way.
The sonics of the album arguably say the most about what the band had planned for the LP’s 13 tracks. Two of the record’s instrumental jams, “Light Flares” and “Tower Seven”, suggest an epic story that has evolved beyond the confines of a simple protest album. “Light Flares” is the jazz-fusion combo of minimalist drums and a groove that sets the stage for the grand, ambient sound to come. It’s like a futuristic rocket ship emerging from Earth’s orbit, ready to veer out into the optimistic darkness of the rest of the universe, before blasting off with a heavy, impassioned beat that hits hyperdrive through the remainder of the album. As cinematic as it is, the near-eight minute groove of “Tower Seven” blows it away. Like a dubstep/lounge/bossa nova reworking of some tune from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s infinitely large, a massive, sweeping effort that takes ambiance and rips from it any sense of wandering, instead instilling a sense of purpose and focus like nothing else out there. It’s a sci-fi theme of gargantuan scope, building on the basics of some new jazz hybrid. Additionally, it’s a journey to a new sector, one waiting to be terraformed with ideas and concepts for a better world, one that leaves behind childish notions of injustice and inequality.
This brave new world so beautifully and succinctly outlined by those two offerings is then enhanced with the album’s other tracks and their nods to moving beyond life’s problems through sheer force of will. The one-two punch of the title track and “Take My Soul” read like mission logs before the great journey outward. The title track is one of the more direct protest songs, but even it is built from the down-tempo funk of a man (the rhymes of guest rapper Mr. Lif) recognizing that the perpetuation of fear and ignorance may be unavoidable, as they’re essential parts of life on this rock. “Take My Soul” is slightly more hopeful, gearing toward some of the otherworldly sounds of “Tower Seven”, but still with a sense of desperation and confusion as the narrator (an especially haunting Loulou) is ready to leave it all behind.
It’s from that moment of sweet release that the rest of the album’s truly dazzling moments are built. Everything builds to “Tower Seven”, making the title track feel doubly heavy and important, making “Where It All Starts” and “Free” feel so rewarding and emotionally fulfilling. Once more featuring Loulou, “Where It All Starts” is the brightest burning moment of optimism on the record. It’s ambivalent and spacey, yet personal and intimate like a sweet whisper of something earnest. There’s also something sensual, even romantic to it, thanks to the rollicking jazz beat. This song produces the exact feeling that whatever is wrong is about to change. The details are shady, but the sentiment is too alluring to ignore.
By the time everything ends in “Free”, the record’s message and narrative are complete. Landing in an alien planet (perhaps the location of “Tower Seven”) of bizarre piano and Kota’s gorgeous yet solemn vocals, the fallacy of our world is light-years away. While all of that emotional corruption may still tear their home planet apart, this trip-hop intergalactic train has reached its slice of space jazz heaven.