Worldwide The Death Set
[Counter/Ninja Tune; 2008]
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The fusion of rap and heavy metal in the mid-1980s was as inevitable as it was initially novel, what with the premium both genres place on earthquaking drum beats and aggressive phallocentricism. But somewhere in the journey from "Rock Box" to Limp Bizkit, rap was effectively divorced from its true spiritual white-boy cousin-- punk rock, with which it shared roots in the underclass, modest, DIY means of production and a certain outspoken candor. It's a connection that wasn't lost on everybody-- most notably, the young Beastie Boys, but where the Beasties felt it was a prerequisite to drop their guitars in order to pass the mic, some 25 years later, the opening salvo from Baltimore's Death Set proffers another option for another rap-savvy punk-rockers: "Listen to This Collision".
For Death Set, the collision is not just musical-- hitching revved-up buzzsaw guitars to machine-gunned low-budget beats-- but demographic and, most notably, physical. Upon stumbling into their afternoon South by Southwest set last March, I was greeted with the sight of beardo indie-rock dudes and neon-hatted Spank Rock look-alikes bum-rushing the stage with equal gusto, while Death Setters Johnny Siera and Beau Velasco-- flanked by two drummers-- stood gleefully in the centre of the melee, as stage-diving bodies flew around them like storm debris. That the band are denizens of Dan Deacon's Wham City should come as no surprise, but a Death Set show presents a new utopia: Slam City.
Their debut disc, Worldwide, can't match that display for sheer visceral thrills-- its compact, lo-fi production inspires less of a pogo and more of a vigorous head-nod, and with 18 over-caffeinated tracks in 25 minutes, the album feels like a particularly sweet treat that passes through your system far too quickly. But as we approach the impending global oil crisis, the disc's unbridled enthusiasm presents itself as a viable alternative energy source. Worldwide adopts the ghetto-tech machination and chest-pumped posturing of early-80s rap, but-- in the words of a classic "Mr. Show" sketch-- without all that rap. Instead, the shout-it-out-loud exhortations of "Intermission" and "Impossible"-- Worldwide's surefire circle-pit instigators-- expose rapid-fire flows and punk-rock sloganeering as products of the same bratty insolence.
A great deal of Death Set's charm lies in how their toothsome double-guitar attack is deliberately undermined by their tinkertoy beats and new-waved keys; when the band try to overcompensate with the aggro, like on the robo-hardcore thrasher "Day in the Wife", they sound like they've arrived 10 years too late for the Atari Teenage Riot. But Siera and Velasco mostly know that, with their helium-high, munchkin voices, they're not going to fool anyone with a hardcore pose. Like Ween in their infancy, their band is really a vehicle to play out basement rock-star and gangsta fantasies-- Worldwide is littered with cheekily self-aware shout-outs to "the muthafuckin' Death Set"-- but in their hearts of hearts, they're just a couple of softies: with endearing blitzkrieg-pop confections like "Had a Bird" and "Selective Memories", Death Set appear no more threatening than a couple of kids on Christmas morning waiting to unwrap the new, all-Superchunk edition of "Guitar Hero".
-Stuart Berman, June 06, 2008