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Pre-Millennium Tension

From as early in life as I can remember until age 7, I had a recurring nightmare. Down the hall from my room, I could hear an ominous, gentle-but-steady drumming. Though I couldn't see him, I knew the source of the rhythm was a little man, no more than three feet tall, of indistinct features but unmistakable evil. The drumming got closer, increasing in volume. The tension was unbearable. I didn't know exactly what was going to happen to me when the little man arrived, but I knew it was bad. Always, just as the drummer turned the corner from the hall into my room, I woke up before glimpsing him. The fear was never resolved, left ripe for the stirring the next time.

If that little man had ever spoken to me, I know now he would have sounded exactly like Tricky.

Pre-Millennium Tension, Tricky's official follow-up to 1994's Maxinquaye (the album for which the term "trip-hop" was created), is a tense affair indeed. It's spooky, in that subtle, waking-and-dreaming-in-fits-and-starts sort of way that squeezes the music right under your skin. But it's not, as you might suppose from the title, a prophetic tale of futuristic horrors. The "tension" comes from the highly original, offbeat and often downright creepy personal world of Tricky himself--he's just figured out a way to deliver that world into your mind as well.

Pre-Millennium Tension is scary in an understated way. Like a good, slow-motion nightmare, you just know something really weird is about to happen--you just can't put your finger on it. This is not the in-your-face slasher-movie chills, punctuated by screams and howls, of horror-core rap like the Gravediggaz or shock metal like Cannibal Corpse. Regardless of Tricky's insistence to the contrary, his music is indeed trip-hop. It's just that his take on the genre he's credited with creating is raw and visceral, and anything but laid-back and mellow like, say, Portishead.

That's what makes this album so special: that Tricky does things his own way. While other self-appointed practitioners of trip-hop crank out pristine digital studio masterworks of precision sequencing and subsonic bass, Tricky is unselfconsciously content to put whole songs together in cut-and-paste fashion on his little Yamaha QY-20 sequencer (an inexpensive piece of equipment not usually considered "studio quality" gear).

Tension's 11 tracks feature layer upon layer of dense, languid cut-and-paste loops--guitar, horn, drum, lyric--repeated until they take on a mantralike quality. Tricky, like all great musicians of his century, knows the value of repetition, of creating a trancelike state in the listener. In this sense (and here's something else quite special about Tension), this disc has more in common with contemporary classical composers like Gorecki and Part and with experimental dark ambient artists like Lustmord or Zoviet France than with other pop music.

And it is pop. These are songs, not academic "pieces." Always anchoring the dreamy atmospherics to this world are the breathy-but-firm childlike vocal stylings of regular Tricky chanteuse Martine, a handful of guest singers, and the gravel-throated, working-class British warblings of Tricky himself. Of course, when Tricky takes the mike, it's always a double-edged sword: Sure, he's seductive and mysterious, but he also sounds damned dangerous . . . you're never sure whether you should want him or fear him.

The strongest of these moments emerge early in the album; after the rolling, bluesy and unsettling "Vent" come two raw, exposed songs that take your breath away. On "Christiansands," Tricky ominously intones, seemingly whispering right in your ear, "You and me/What does that mean?/Always/What does that mean?/Forever/What does that mean?/It means we'll manage/I'll master your language/And in the meantime, I'll create my own . . ." He repeats those words, again and again, until they're buried deep in your mind . . . he's got you.

In the next track, "Tricky Kid," things are just as personal, as Tricky sneers, "They used to call me Tricky Kid/I live the life they wish they did/I live the life, don't own a car/Now they call me a superstar." In this urgently chanted biographical tale, the last word of each line is punctuated with a sinister snarl by guest rapper Rock, the whole performance underscored by a swirling reggae/hip-hop beat.

The only moments on Tension that don't really click are those where Tricky is noticeably "absent," such as the Jamaican talkathon "Ghetto Youth." But such moments are few and far between. Plenty of additional surprises await us, such as the ultra-lowdown and chaotically noisy "Sex Drive," the psychedelic voodoo blues of "Bad Things" or the narrating-a-nightmare crash-and-tumble of "My Evil Is Strong." This is true postmodern music, chunks and snippets of cultural debris from far and near, altered, patterned and repeated into a dense, emotional stew.

So call it what you want: trip-hop, postmodern (pre-millennial?) cut-and-paste sound poetry or Tricky's preferred "weird hip-hop." This is edgy, intense, unsettling material, guaranteed to sonically and lyrically alter your mind by burying itself deep into its dark recesses. And that's the stuff that dreams are made of.

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Frank Smith