Dark Tower – Canterbury Drafts

2001, She’ll Be Right, SBR98912

Six years is a long time to be waiting for a debut album. Christchurch, New Zealand hip-hop duo dark tower started strongly way back in 1995 with a killer lead single and subsequent EP entitled Zealman which established their intentions as being perhaps the only culturally conscious New Zealand rap outfits around.

The EP seamlessly weaved a plethora of kiwi references (everything from rhyming Weetbix to the EP sleeve, which depicts the ‘Edmunds Cookbook’ cover – a kiwi tradition) along with a playful musical backing and some excellent, dry vocal delivery.

Over the course of the late 90’s the boys (duo Jody ‘The Earl’ Lloyd and Eli ‘The Eel’ Foley) continued to develop their live sound. They created a strong body of songs that was continually redeveloped and reworked, releasing a number of singles – the majority of which are present on this album. The group eventually took on a third member (Jamie), who left the group just as it was about to put out further delayed the album’s release as the group once again reworked songs to remove Jamie from the proceedings.

The end result is somewhat disconnected, over-produced, yet amazingly intricate. Lloyd has a knack for developing dark moods with his backing instrumentation, incorporating a number of guest musicians into the mix (including his father David – a seasoned folk musician, and pop-superstar-that-never-was Lindon Puffin).

The heart of the album is still very present ‘the land of the long white cloud’ details the duo’s love for their fair city, creating imagery with their thickly accented drawls over some lovely reed whistles from David Lloyd. Their big recent single ‘baggy trousers’ has been reworked, still retaining the fun, humorous aspect of the single version – but really it’s a throw-away joke hip-hop at the best of times.

The duo of tracks entitled ‘That’s right’ raise the seriousness of the album – answering back to the various hip-hop crews who have criticized dark tower for being too ‘New Zealand’. Along with erstwhile old-school crew Upper Hutt Posse, Dark Tower represent New Zealand as it is without being forced into Americanized stylistic traits, yet some took their angle as merely a demoralizing joke on hip-hop itself. Eli and the Earl complement each other nicely on the tracks – Eli being something more of an alto rapper whilst the Earl sticks to a low, almost spoken lyrical flow.

Overly moody overtones make ‘southward bound’ something of an album highlight. Perfectly illustrating the eclectic instrumentation of the album with some tasty guitar work along with a number of unidentifiable bowed sounds and sample manipulations – the track ebbs and flows before Lindon Puffin adds his voice to the sarcastic punch-line: ‘…Coz if you don’t go and take your time to do that helpful dead, then no ones gonna bloody help you, in you time of need’.

The second of their redeveloped tracks, ‘sons of the south’ actually manages to improve on the original – a fully realized take on Lloyd’s (otherwise over-produced sounding) new style, with the boys showing incredibly tight flow. The track builds through a number of different styles, the bass squelching and out whilst the likes of turntable, old-TV theme show music, and full orchestral back builds and drops out.

‘Zealman ii’ totally changes the context of the original track, turning it into an epic, guitar and turntable fueled reinterpretation. Sounding somewhat overblown – the track reads like a manifesto of lyrical prose. Dark tower obviously have a great knack for building complex vocal treatments – ‘we share a common thread of history with much of the world / in that we live in a land which was forcibly colonized by a white culture’ flowing like water at the mouth for the Earl.

Basically the album is a very personalized, over-developed and intricate document to a well-defined culture. It’s an answer back to dark tower’s critics, and on that perspective it succeeds immensely, but at times that feeling distracts from the album being enjoyable on a purely audible level. Thankfully there are enough highs to keep the album afloat, and the numerous in-jokes and New Zealand-based humor add to the albums appeal greatly.