The surprising thing about Seventies progressive rock was its popularity. Epic rock operas laden with poesy, costumes, keyboards, and attempts to appropriate jazz and classical music through guitar and drum solos were topping the charts. Everyday people bought into this willfully pretentious music of ideas. They were proud to call themselves fans of Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer; supporters of music that would eventually serve as one of rock's greatest punch lines. cLOUDDEAD -- a supergroup of musicians affiliated with Anticon, an Oakland, California-based avant-garde collective -- is a hip-hop incarnation of prog rock. Its second album, ten, is a very strange piece of music.
It starts with the name. Forget capitalism, cLOUDDEAD is inverting the dictates of capitalization, a sure sign that affected aesthetics will be given free rein. Thusly "Pop Song," ten's first selection, opens with an elfin voice whispering "The wood man and his splintering self/The wooden woman and her hollowing out" so crisply that his spittle sprays out of the speakers. In a sort of round, another voice joins in with distended monosyllabic bursts of "Sick-ly Mick-ey Mouse." Finally, just before the woozy music starts up, a drowsy chorus of "Elvis, what happened?" locks into the cadence. It's three layers of pregnant high school poetry, it's the first 45 seconds of the album, and it's very disorienting.
"Dead Dogs Two" is a story about a pair of animated dog corpses relayed over plodding organ funk and woody, clunking percussion. "Physics of a Unicycle" is something about early manned flight sung in falsetto while nervous keyboard players clatter through a monotonous duet. Vocalists Why? and Doseone rarely let up with their nasally sing-song delivery, while producer Odd Nosdam demonstrates just how bizarre music influenced by Prince Paul, Boards of Canada, and Flying Saucer Attack can be.
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The not-so-surprising thing about cLOUDDEAD's prog-rap is that it's not very popular among hip-hop fans, who aren't as desperate for pretentious artistic statements as their rock counterparts were in the mid-Seventies. Besides, the group has more in common with the prog-rockers that are rarely heard on classic rock radio: bands like King Crimson and Soft Machine who, far from their bloated contemporaries, never seemed to worry about being too silly or difficult to sell records. It's that same kind of high-minded eccentricity that makes ten such an interesting listen.