After the desolate wasteland that was Quarter Turns Over a Living Line, Blackest Ever Black are billing Raime’s Tooth as “the sound of resistance and counter-attack”. For sure, the London duo’s sophomore LP may be more tightly structured and purposeful in its post-dub experimentalism than its predecessor, which built an anarchic atmosphere of urban decay and “self-destruction” out of rootless strings, blackened ambience and jilted beats. However, there’s something decidedly non-resistant and non-counter-aggressive about a sequel whose creeping tracks revolve almost entirely around narrowly repeating figures, around quietly scratched guitars and steadily respiring synths that trace the same coiled circles again and again, afraid to break out of their squalid comfort zones and transcend the harsh world that threatens them from the inside and out.
That’s not to say that Tooth isn’t the sound of something though. Both Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead are masters of pitch-black production, and together they render bleak, unsettling soundscapes that paint the same kind of modern-day anxiety and alienation that marked their supreme debut. The difference here though is that, instead of intimidating the ears with a post-musical sprawl of electronic detritus and decay, such tracks as opener “Coax” are tangibly more focused and coherent in their expression of the same anxiety and alienation. In many ways, this is all to the good, as “Coax” itself lurks and crawls with autosuggestive bass, ominous guitar chimes and phasing in-and-out synthesizers to definite effect, clearly evoking an environment where life is nasty, brutish and short, where we all follow our own petty circuits of selfishness and greed without worrying about the harm we’re causing our neighbors.
The thing is, the other seven tracks of Tooth all studiously follow the same grimy template, as if Andrews and Halstead really want you to go away thinking about just how measly postmodern life can be in its repetitiveness, its conformity, its shallowness, its baseness, and its self-absorption. Such mixtures of post-punk and chill-out dub as “Dead Heat” and “Dialling In, Falling Out” invariably use some skulking guitar line and slinking low-end as a rhythmic base, onto which they periodically superimpose some jarring sample or synth in order to provide an illusory sense of movement and event. Examples of the latter include the artificial crow- and horn-effects of “Dead Heat” and the sliding machine-noise of “Hold Your Line”, where the syncopated guitar itching and momentary electronic shouts create an impression of someone painfully limping through a concrete desert, desperately searching for help. Their impact of these recurring interjections on the proceedings is to generate the thick impression that something is happening to the album’s hapless protagonists, that they’re being confronted with obstacles and challenges as they attempt to navigate their way out of the dystopia in which they’ve found themselves.
That said, these hypothetical protagonists never really go anywhere. They may be ‘resisting’ and ‘counterattacking’ on Tooth, yet their resistance and counterattacks merely assume the form of locking themselves within a cocoon of restrained habit, where the neurotic repetition of doing the same things over and over is mistaken for rebellious transcendence. This comes to the fore in the frigid “Glassed”, where the same slithering guitar and a ghostly foghorn reappear and reappear again, and in closer “Stammer”, where appropriately enough a stammering guitar and tensed strings depict the pitiable desperation of those of us who can ‘combat’ the systems that subjugate us only by finding a way to live numbly within them. The forlorn track may seem to push against these systems by turning up the volume and the strain on the guitar as it nears its end, but the absence of any modulation, chord change, crescendo or cadence suggests that such extra volume and strain serves less to actually change things and more to reassure ourselves that we can still entertain the illusion of trying.
That pretty much everything is all very one-track and linear like this on Tooth has its pros and cons. On the one hand, the retro-futuristic paleness of “Cold Cain” and its uncomfortably mournful synths furnish a suitably oppressive aura of social breakdown and decay, with Raime using constrained repetition and occasional streaks of incidental noise to powerfully convey that feeling of being trapped in a dead-end society with no foreseeable hope of escape. On the other, even though Andrews and Halstead know perfectly well how to wield low-frequency bass and electronic atmospherics to foster an ambience of twitchy despair, such an ambience does become a little too fulsome and exhausting by the end of the album’s 37-minute running time. All eight of its night-time prowls are minor variations on the same basic theme and form, so that once the LP has drawn to its close with a predictably lonely whimper rather than a righteous bang, the listener can’t help but be drained by the whole thing, demoralized by the duo’s vision of a one-dimensional world from which meaning, hope, purpose, dignity and humanity have been exiled.
Still, in a world where such things are often lacking, Tooth might have a point. It may not be as varied and as inventive as its more radical forerunner, but it nonetheless offers a very penetrating illustration of the post-social, estranged urban environment we often inhabit, doing what it does very well despite doing it a tad too much. Its dub-, grime- and rock-influenced electronica shows how we often get bogged down in our own narcissistic and neurotic patterns, spinning in circles rather than stepping outside of ourselves to truly combat the dire situations and conditions that led us into our ruts in the first place. Of course, it doesn’t offer any answers to such an unfortunate problem, but then again, much of its power comes from its disturbing suggestion that there aren’t any.