Genius in popular music usually isn't recognized until long after it debuts, but Prefuse 73's 2003 sophomore effort, One Word Extinguisher, is an album that many of us will be talking about to our grandchildren. When Prefuse (né Guillermo Scott Herren) sat down to work on his first release, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, he must have looked at b-boy hip-hop sitting on one side of his worktable and Warp-style IDM on the other, uttered "no regrets," and started smashing them together like a young scientist in a moment of temporary insanity. If Vocal Studies set the stage for "glitch-hop" as a genre and spawned a raft of Prefuse soundalikes, One Word Extinguisher left all of his imitators in the dust with wild and colorful flair, inimitable grooves and a surprising emotional undercurrent. Extinguished: Outtakes--vignettes from the O.W.E. sessions, and a solid album in its own right--only upped the profile of One Word Extinguisher, the monumental importance of which we realized only after we quit bobbing our heads.
The "Prefuse 73 Can Do No Wrong Era" was quickly followed by the "Era In Which Prefuse 73 Started to Suck," when 2005's Surrounded by Silence floundered under mixed reviews and confused fan reactions. Most chalked it up to the excess of guest artists and forgave him. 2006's Security Screenings--which Herren called a "non-album"--was a tossed-off effort whose only conceivable purpose was to give Herren something to do in between side projects, and many were willing to treat it as a stopgap and forgive him for that, too. Now it's 2007, Herren's run out of excuses, and we have a new Prefuse record called Preparations (which includes a full-length bonus disc of new material called Interregnums). If you're like me, you ordered your copy of Preparations two weeks in advance, eagerly waited for it to arrive in the mail, opened the plastic wrap, popped Preparations into the disc drive, prayed for the "Era In Which Prefuse 73 Finally Redeems Himself," pressed play, and....
Well, I'll just burst the bubble now: Preparations isn't very good. Yet it fails so strangely that anyone who cares about Prefuse's career would have trouble dismissing it outright. Neither an unholy mess like Surrounded nor a half-baked EP in disguise like Screenings, Preparations is a peculiar combinination of basic Prefuse boom bap (albeit with less boom and bap), bizarre melodic passages, ill-fitted samples and unfortunate collaborations. Herren's greatest strength has always been creating euphony from heterogeneous parts, so Preparations' inability to jell on a number of levels could be considered its cardinal weakness, and it makes the ordeal a slog even at a brief 46 minutes.
This being Prefuse 73, the productions are appropriately busy and labored-over, and if Machine Drum were to release something this intricate, we'd throw him a party. But held up to what we know Prefuse is capable of, a song like "Beaten Thursdays" sounds pretty lame, with microwave-zapped bell tones and a bassless beat that amble toward an anticlimactic finish. The stronger songs here are amorphous, forgettable blobs of gauzy synths and vocal "oohs" and "ahhs," like most of Leyode's Fascinating Tininess executed with far less passion. But even these songs contain at least one unsavory shard that jolts us out of what little reverie we might be in. In "Noreaster Cheer," it's a death metal stomp in the midsection; in "Pomade Suite Version One," it's a set of dumb samples at the beginning of the track that didn't make me want to listen to the rest.
Such is the manner in which awkward moments nudge up against bland ones on Preparations. Unfortunately, whole songs are awkward too. Are those discordant plucked strings on "Aborted Hugs" for real? What on Earth is that circus-themed honking on "Spaced + Dissonant"? Sadly, "The Class of 73 Bells" and "Smoking Red" prove that Herren hasn't gotten better at assimilating guest artists since Surrounded by Silence. School of Seven Bells' singer Claudia Dehaza once collaborated with Herren on a wonderful and exotic project called A Cloud Mireya. I had hoped that "The Class of 73 Bells" would recreate some Cloud Mireya magic, but no; it simply sits there in a key too tepid for poor Ms. Dehaza to work with. And "Smoking Red" is just a buzzy showcase for John Stainer's cinderblock-heavy drum line--the first one I learned to play in middle school.
The bonus disc, Interregnums, should come as a surprise, since it doesn't conform at all to Prefuse 73 proper. The other surprise is that it's lovely (and if you're wondering how Preparations managed to drag itself up to three stars, look no further); synths, orchestral instruments and angelic voices move around each other in beatless reverie, always flagrantly emotional and covering a startling range of feelings. So, it seems, this is where Herren's heart now resides. In interviews he reveals a growing distaste for hip-hop, and pours increasingly more energy into his esoteric, Catalan-flavored project Savath y Savalas--a band that listeners have never clung to with the fervidness they save for Prefuse 73. So perhaps Herren hasn't lost his genius--just his interest. At the very least, Preparations will impel us to approach One Word Extinguisher and the rest of his early successes with more appreciative ears.