Not since Herbie Hancock’s 1963 album Inventions and Dimensions or the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat has there been such an example of a black American exploring the themes of a popular culture outside that which we now call “Urban American.”

Shakyamuni, the pseudonym of Chicagoan Antoine Philhellene, grew up in the outskirts of Chicago quite literally cutting his teeth on his father’s LP collection of innumerable Chicago House pioneers. In a Paris Review-published interview, he revealed that his first conscious memory is of his father beating him “within five centimeters of [his] life,” with a “plastic” when the veteran DJ returned home to find his son teething on the outer rim of a Sterling Void acetate.

It’s only natural then that Shakyamuni should so naturally integrate the classic Chicago sounds into his compositions, rarely, if ever, sounding like a shoe-in concession towards the navel gazer, NME-reader and trainspotter demographics. In the same interview he cites Afrika Bambaataa as one of his chief influences—a claim backed up in his previous work and as well on A Pale View of the Hill Batteries—a great relief for this reviewer and many others on staff. As we are all apt to know, Afrika Bambaataa is the Che Guevarra of contemporary music: adored, eulogized and marketed by hundreds of thousands of impressionable First World youths who haven’t the slightest clue who the man was or what he did.

Of course, A Pale View of the Hill Batteries is about none of this. A Pale View of the Hill Batteries is about territory rarely traversed by today’s popular musician and deserves praise simply for that.

The gestures towards the classics are sweeping, grandiose on this double album. Shakyamuni’s adherence to them is, like I have said, no cosmetic attachment to a preexisting pop shill’s copy-paste formula. He adheres strictly to the tried-and-true conventions of the classic Motown record:

1) Your record must begin with a blast of the brass section on a major chord.

2) Your record must have at least one down tempo ballad.

a. The ballad must be at a tempo slower than 4/4.

b. The ballad must have vocals.

3) Your record must be as much about the producer as the artist(s).

On the ballad “Never Quite so Good as Now,” the live hi-hats, played live by Shakyamuni himself, open up halfway through and sound for all the world like the wracked snorts of a weeping primary school girl sniffing a line of persistent snot back up her nostril time and time again in the most Sisyphus of futile gestures of grief.

A Pale View of the Hill Batteries, that is to say the title itself, is a reference to the experiences of Shakyamuni’s mulatto grandfather in the Second World War. In the title track on the album, Shakyamuni devotes all the tinny vocals of verse and chorus to recounting a story of his grandfather and the rest of his company storming a steep hill, obfuscated with thick thule fog, on which a clutch of Italian artillery guns are reputed to be entrenched. It is the worst song on the album.

Overall, this is an album whose rewards outnumber the challenges, and Shakyamuni is a new aural artist worth paying attention, if not listening, to.

Advertisements