Shabazz Palaces – “Lese Majesty”

The first time I ever encountered Björk in person was at a Shabazz Palaces concert.

That sentence seems impossibly weird when I re-read it. But it is, however, true.

It happened at Iceland Airwaves 2012 when I hung around after a show to buy some vinyl from the Agent Fresco guys, and as a result I was late getting out of there. By time I got my record I had to haul ass, against the wind, and uphill (of course) back to our apartment so I could drop off the record, which I did, and then immediately turned around and fought the wind again (downhill this time) as I rushed to KEX where Holly was already waiting to see Seattle’s own Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction. By time I got there I was a sweaty mess, and the place was packed. While I got close to where Holly and our friend Norberto were standing, I was still a few feet away, and for a brief period was standing next to a really short chick with dark hair. Holly kept looking over at me but I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t until after the show that I found out I’d been standing next to Björk for a couple of minutes. Some brush with fame. (I encountered her again at Airwaves last year. I was flipping through some of the vinyl at Lucky Records waiting for a band to start playing, looked up, and she was flipping through the bin directly across from me (and she smiled), which is a much better story really.)

All of this really has nothing to do with Shabazz Palaces per se, at best only in the most ancillary of ways. But they did put on a great show that night, which got me listening to their Black Up CD for a while, and it’s really good. So of course I needed to go pick up their new album, Lese Majesty today to see what they’re up to. Turns out, quite a bit.

Shabazz Palaces defy categorization. Is their music trance or ambient or house or hip hop…? Vocally there is a strong hip hop component in how the vocals are articulated, but there’s some singing here as well. Hell, it’s not even easy to figure out where one song ends and the next begins. Lese Majesty is a stream of consciousness, with low and slow beats, samples, and just pure flow. It defies efforts to describe it with words – they simply don’t seem up to the task, just as one can’t sing about a sculpture or paint about a book and hope to somehow capture the essence of the art you’re trying to describe. To write about it would require a lot of technical knowledge (which I absolutely do not have) and words and would reduce the whole thing to a lifeless academic exercise. Well, screw that.

With 18 songs spread out over two records, technically Lese Majesty is a double album… though side D is actually a decoratively etched non-playing surface, so really we’re getting three sides of music. Side A is straight up chill, slow and deep, musically lush and vocally flowing. Side B breaks that mode somewhat, seemingly with more tempo changes and idiosyncrasies, most notably on the wandering “Ishmael,” with it’s section of bottom-of-the-ocean sounding vocals and more abrupt musical shifts, and a pair of sub-one-minute tracks, “Soundview” and “Divine of Form.” The side closes with “#Cake,” which is one of my early favorites after only a few listens. Side C is a bit more like side A, though “New Black Wave” has a bit of funk to it, a track with a solid grooving beat.

Lese Majesty is certainly one of those “this won’t appeal to everyone” kind of albums, but one of the things I really like about it is that you can listen to it cranked way up and get into it, or just as easily turn down the volume a bit and allow it to create a background for whatever else you happen to be doing. And that’s not an easy balance to strike, but Shabazz Palaces got it done.

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