Designer Carnage
Negative Gain Productions

If you need to know what Jamie Blacker’s latest ESA album is all about, I encourage you to stop reading this review right now and go put on “Saturnalia”, the closing track. Those of you who have listened to those 9 minutes, careening from death metal riffing and vocals to free-jazz saxophone to calls-to-prayer, accompanied by Blacker’s trademark rhythmic noise now know exactly what Designer Carnage is all about: the addition of more musical forms, some entirely unexpected to the ESA toolkit. While not every track is the rollercoaster “Saturnalia” is, every one has something new and intriguing to offer.

This kind of experimentalism with form is pretty central to the evolution of ESA. From the earliest recordings which sampled orchestral elements extensively, through the complex and conceptual Themes of Carnal Empowerment trilogy and into the project’s current era (loosely defined by the increase in vocals from Blacker and guests on many tracks), there’s never been a lack of movement nor change in ESA. Where Designer Carnage is notable is in how easily the disparate musical ideas Blacker draws on slot in with the now familiar mix of saturated percussion, manipulated samples and crunching electronics, either as accompaniment or counterpoint. Hear how the operatic vocals that emerge midway through opener “Laudanum Dance” (preceded by a minute of solo classical piano and harpsichord, natch) soon become rhythmically entwined with the track’s low growling basses and cracking snares, a fit that sounds unnaturally natural in context.

Those moments are legion across the record, surprising the ear and maintaining a high level of interest. Check the brief dixieland jazz breakdowns on “I Detach”, a leftfield break from the cracking drums and Blacker’s own distinctive croon and shout, or the Venetian Snares-esque violin-break on “Distortion Only”, each is impossible to ignore and central to the way each song is put together. It’s a play that could come off as a gimmick if it wasn’t so steeped in intention: the ragtime sample that starts off “Come and Find Me” has something to say about the rhythmic elements that follow it, and “Whom Then Shall I Fear” featuring Pee Wee Pimpin isn’t just a case of throwing a rapper on an industrial track – the song’s drums and evolving rhythmic form plays off the texas MC’s flow and word placement.

I daresay ESA’s electronics weren’t in danger of becoming stale without this kind of stylistic gambit – listen to the crushing “Hyena” or “One Missed Call” to hear how much complexity and dynamism Blacker can apply to what you could call a ‘traditional’ song in his style, all high tension drums and corrosive textures. Designer Carnage is the work of a producer already at the top of his game invoking musical variation in unanticipated and delightful ways, and nailing it every time. Whether the individual listener thinks it’s the best ESA record to date or not, you can’t deny it’s the most accomplished. Recommended.

Buy it.