EPs are tricky. Whether representing an evolution or a detour, they arrive as a loaded proposition. And that's not really fair. A sketchbook isn't judged the same way a completed piece of art is. If the artist chooses to reveal process, then the preliminary work is responded to as exercises or experiments. When music arrives in short form an interim piece of a musician's puzzle yet is packaged and marketed as finished product, it's hard to assess what you're really hearing.
Expectations were high for the new EPs, released almost simultaneously, from two of Scott Herren's three recording personalities, Prefuse 73 and Savath + Savalas (the glitchier Delarosa & Asora being the third). Herren's first album as Prefuse 73, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives, was a vigorous collision of hip-hop and electronic music. It was dense, challenging, and, on tracks like "point to b," with its staccato raps, scratchy beats and melodic undercurrents, vital. He was on to something new, which, for fans of both of those tired genres, was truly exciting.
With The '92 VS '02 Collection, and its 16 minutes of music, nothing approaches the exhilaration that came with hearing "point to b" for the first time the instant when, unexpectedly, your heart syncs with an entirely new beat, when your ears perk up to combinations of sounds they've never encountered before. When music delivers those sensations, few things trump it. For Herren to have done it with his first Prefuse 73 album was both a blessing and a curse.
"Desks. Pencils. Bottles" kicks off '92 VS '02 with a riff of spare, pure, rhythm. It's what you'd hear from a guy on a corner, armed with only a desk, pencils and bottles to strike. It's spontaneous. It moves. It's great. Herren adds more layers that, while softening the impact of the start, act as an effective decoy for his next curveball. A synth track subtly drops in to graze this richly fortified landscape. But then, as if it were the cartoon wolf suddenly tearing his sheep suit off, the synthesizer twists and throbs and leaps out of the speakers, appropriating the current that charges Soft Cell's "Tainted Love." It's a shocking break, but it works. And also leads to the question of title.
Throughout this four-song suite, other references are rewound. Some are implied, some are tonal, some are echoes, but all evoke the '80s to such an extent that this EP could have been called The '82 VS '02 Collection. Remove the sampled horns from the second track, "When Irony Wears Thin," or leap to the second half, and meet the instrumental cousin of the Talking Heads' "Born Under Punches," from 1980's Remain in Light. This game of sonic mimicry occurs subtly throughout. You'll hear hints at Art of Noise and, for all of us thirtysomethings, 1984's middle-school slow dance favorite, "Moments in Love."
Fun, interesting for the first two songs. But for the second two, the tautness maintained throughout Vocal Studies sags and the novelty wears. It's not that it ends badly, so much as that the compositions lose steam. What remains in their place is nondescript R&B-influenced downtempo balladry.
The Rolls and Waves EP follows the ambient post-rock of Herren's first Savath LP, Folk Songs for Trains, Trees and Honey, an album of sleepy, guitar-based soundscapes. While Prefuse 73 and Vocal Studies aligned with the other artists on Warp, Savath + Savalas and Folk Songs found its kindred spirits with Tortoise or newer groups such as the lo-fi Do Make Say Think.
Rolls begins with a short, airy jazz piece based on a sax, an upright bass and cymbals that shimmer gently. It's a direct counterpoint to the percussive introduction of '92 VS '02. But, interestingly, as the Prefuse EP wanes and weakens, Rolls becomes livelier and more assertive as it plays. Before he finds his release, with the relatively muscular "Decatur Queen," Herren revisits themes introduced in his earlier work. Guitars flirt with flutes and harps, bits of static and just enough drums to move it along. Aside from some brief vocal snippets, the record remains instrumental.
And cohesive. Similar in spirit, if not quality, to things like DJ Shadow's early What Does Your Soul Look Like, Rolls' narrative strand holds it together, as one piece, rather than a disparate selection of songs. Beyond following Folk Songs' earlier trail, Herren traverses territory previously mapped by Arovane's Tides, labels such as Morr Music, and, of course, DJ Shadow, especially on "Decatur Queen."
With its tension and distressed beats building to the most pronounced catharsis Herren's Savath has delivered, "Decatur Queen" could have been based on a sketch drawn by Josh Davis.
But that's the problem. When Herren released Vocal Studies, he, like Shadow after his groundbreaking Endtroducing, seemed poised to be a force. New to the scene, he was making the game his own. With these two EPs, one a step back, the other a lateral move, it's uncertain whether Herren has decided to go "slow jam" for a change or, for whatever reason, has left his gloves hanging, still ready, still waiting for the next round.
Editor's note: The rating for The '92 Vs '02 Collection is "5"; The Rolls And Waves EP is "6."