Bicameral Brain

Release:  October 2013

Label:  Parallel Thought

Avantgenre:  Phantasmagoric Dark Ambient Hip Hop

Duration:  1:44:52

Origin:  United States

Official site:!333/c12h4

Review online since:  13.02.2015 / 17:25:05


New Jersey’s 3:33 prefer to keep their identities and production methods obscured behind a carefully-arranged shroud - no mean feat in an era where musicians' personal lives, opinions, social media activity and media appearances are as much up for consumption as their music itself. Like Banksy or Burial, the artists behind 3:33 prefer to let their work speak for itself. Of course this approach comes with drawbacks - mostly a lack of presence in the critical-festival taste conglomerate that pushes fans toward the ballyhooed artists of the day. One has to wonder - do 3:33 even want to be ballyhooed? That’s hard to say, but the fact of the matter is that they deserve the opportunity, given their consistent quality and formal innovation. 3:33 have created a confrontational, challenging brand of instrumental hip hop that stands far apart from ostensibly similar beat-oriented projects. They have also delved boldly into ambient music, offering their own dark and tumultuous take on the genre. 3:33’s double album Bicameral Brain, released in late 2013, is a bracing culmination of 3:33’s unique dual aesthetic, showcasing a split-natured but cohesive collection of songs that are groovy, menacing and transportive all at once.

For the sake of analogy, imagine if you will Endtroducing..... era DJ Shadow and Negro Necro Nekros era Oktopus (from Dälek) both cloaked and silent, moving back and forth in the orange glow of flickering torchlight, engaged in a cryptic dance between turntables, samplers and mixers, in a clearing in the woods. Of course, 3:33 are their own beast. In their aural workshop drum grooves balanced on the bleeding-edge of distortion serve as frameworks, providing the sturdy skeletons upon which melodic (or amelodic) and ambient elements are hung. While this sounds an awful lot like the recipe for any old instrumental hip hop, there is a very definite edge to 3:33’s compositions - a certain sensibility that emphasizes aggression, dread and darkness over comfort, smoothness and warmth. There is a pervasive ominousness to Bicameral Brain, and also a bold obtrusiveness that demands attention, and renders the music utterly unsuitable for mere background play. By way of comparison, Dälek’s work has sometimes been referred to as "Hip hop for people who hate hip hop." In the practical sense, this translated roughly to "Hip hop for people who like heavy music" (Dälek released a number of albums on Mike Patton’s Ipecac label and toured with Isis, among others), which is a rarely-encountered crossover. 3:33 however, are exemplary flag-bearers of this esoteric tradition, offering the sort of saturated abrasiveness and doom-filled darkness that comprise the comfort zones of many heavy music fans.

Bicameral Brain is a double album, and each disc has its own character. Disc 1 (the BB- series) consists of the characteristic sound 3:33 mastered early in their output, with heavy beats supporting layered, heavily processed samples. "BB-2" stomps in with a confrontational, front-loaded drum loop, which presages a parade of hums, buzzes and sirens, treated and modified so as to become biomechanical, the boundaries between organic and synthetic sound hopelessly smeared in the cycling din. "BB-3" follows with a beat that could have been catchy in a different context, but here it is used as an insistent bludgeon, urgent and tense in the foreground of the slitherings and diffuse tones of the song’s other elements. "BB-5" begins in the same malevolent tradition as its contemporaries, with rhythmic hitches serving as additional disorientation. However, the song soon gives way to tinkling, mellifluous jazz keys and horns, while retaining a palpable sense of dread. "BB-6" is built around the terrifying, pained roar of some Godzilla monster, with the proceedings slowing to crushing thuds and sickening crashes as the cries of the beast echo unabated.

And so it goes for the BB- series. In comparison to 3:33’s earlier work, the songs here are a bit colder, less organic, even somehow desaturated (as the album art attests). There aren’t any double-take highlights, like the "Ilias! Where are you!?" sample from "LFTG-3" (from Live from the Grove) or the yapping dogs from "ITMOI-3" (from In the Middle of Infinity). Nonetheless, the disc is admirably consistent, and marches through its frightening territory in an array of textural guises, varying tempos and moods enough to keep listeners guessing. "BB-11" closes out the first disc of Bicameral Brain with a promise of things to come, burgeoning without drums for its first four-plus minutes before offering the first chick of a hi-hat.

Disc 2 of Bicameral Brain (the BB2- series) is a continuation of The sensibility 3:33 explored on "White Room," the 41-minute closing track of 2012’s In the Middle of Infinity. The intent of "White Room" was an exploration of the mood impact of ambient soundcraft in the longform, often without percussion. The BB2- series has the readily apparent advantage of hindsight and growth, and is a more well-rounded, more absorbing trip down the rabbit hole than the previous work.

The BB2- series is a haunting and deep drift into an illogical phantasmagoria, one swirling with voices in severe states of agitation, distress and rapture, glassy-eyed and frightening in their chants, screams, arias and howls. They are strained and close to breaking, their waveforms pulling apart like tortured Slinkys. In seeming death-struggle with these human elements are a frightening army of electro-mechanical sounds, clattering, screeching, humming, beeping - torture devices or voices of some future hell in the making. Drumbeats phase in and out at their own behest, often thrumming and tapping with restraint that would have been unthinkable on disc 1. Contours and sequences are evident, but something about the BB2- series defies cataloging, its construction and fluid progressions too enigmatic to grasp - almost like Ephel Duath’s Pain Necessary to Know, but in a very different musical context. There are also some unforgettable milestones along the way, like the lovely whale-calls in the aquatic, mostly languid "BB2-5," or the groovy drums, smoky saxophone and radio-chatter on "BB2-6." There are also tribal worship circles, cascading desert horns, watery drips, muffled grunts, and most unexpectedly, a passage of euphonious-but-unnerving jazz in "BB2-11."

The journey the BB2- series represents is otherworldly and even transformative. There is a high level of meticulous detail in the construction, yet the closer one looks at the brushstrokes, the less they reveal about the gestalt. By the time the last radiator hissings of "BB2-14" cut out to silence, one feels as though they have gone through to the other side of something - some haggard and fraught spirit journey into, and beyond, the manifold depths of the unknowable mind. As much as 3:33 represent a uniquely pummeling version of instrumental hop hop, and a nightmarish vision of ambient drift, by the end of Bicameral Brain, one can’t help but feel wistful stirrings. The journey was often ugly and loud and scary, but in the cacophony and unrest there were breath-catching moments of awesome power and supreme beauty. Crushed to dust physically by BB- and plunged into other worlds by BB2-, we emerge inexplicably refreshed, happy to have awakened, and curious about the things we have seen and heard. Perhaps some time later, not right away, we realize all we want to do is get back there again.

David Sano


Disc 1
01 - BB-1
02 - BB-2
03 - BB-3
04 - BB-4
05 - BB-5
06 - BB-6
07 - BB-7
08 - BB-8
09 - BB-9
10 - BB-10
11 - BB-11

Disc 2
01 - BB2-1
02 - BB2-2
03 - BB2-3
04 - BB2-4
05 - BB2-5
06 - BB2-6
07 - BB2-7
08 - BB2-8
09 - BB2-9
10 - BB2-10
11 - BB2-11
12 - BB2-12
13 - BB2-13
14 - BB2-14


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