“Parents die, beauty dies
Blue insides, suicide
Death will come for you and I
This head is just a room I hide in…”
These are the first lines from Sadistik’s latest album Haunted Gardens. For long-term fans of the rapper these are familiar themes. Following the death of his dad, Sadistik released Flowers for My Father (2013), including a beautiful tribute to Micheal ‘Eyedea’ Larsen. In his previous LP Altars (2017) the death of these influential figures is made painfully clear: “First Daddy died, then Mikey died, why am I so dead inside?” Now, as the record player warbles out ‘All My Poisons Sit in Frames’ we find ourselves back among the flowers, tributes, reflections and memories. A distant wailing sets off the distorted vocals:
“I feel like I have been here…
…Tell me have you seen her?
Somewhere in the ether…
In terms of Sadistik’s style there has been serious growth over the years. If you listen back across his discography – and we will, soon, write more on The Metamorphosis of Cody Foster – there are very distinctive changes. Not only in the production style, but vocally Sadistik has become dominant, unforgiving, and skilfully controlled. The first single, ‘Eden’, is the perfect showcase for his newfound confident flow. You’d be lucky to count more than one or two moments where a breath can be drawn and you’d be forgiven for missing them. Having seemingly mastered his delivery, his lyrical powers are given new life. The ‘other’ in this track is a lost lover, “wandering” in the background, “drifting” into the distance. As a sombre piano plays it out you might imagine an echo from that opener: Tell me have you seen her?
Let’s pause for a second at the cover. The haunting figure is reminiscent of Miss Havisham, a character from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861). Jilted at the altar, Havisham ages ungracefully in her decrepit mansion wearing her wedding dress at all times. The cover of Haunted Gardens might well be a nod to this iconic character, only in this interpretation she is topless (or naked) wearing a veil and gauze-bound flowers as a blindfold. The flowers in her hands might be an offering, they might be her eyes, or maybe even both. (Not for nothing, but there’s a nice connection here with billy woods’s song ‘Houti’: “Miss Havishim at the drapes/ Naked to the waist, aged like grapes”. A nice coincidence, no?)
‘8 ½’ is a standout track. Produced by Televangel (formerly of Blue Sky Black Death), the title is a nod to an Italian film of the same name in which a director suffers from “director’s block” before his life takes on a surreal and harrowing path. But there’s more than meets the ear to this beautifully produced track. Sadistik teases the listener with his control of meter. Take the brilliant second verse as an example: the first 10-syllable line – “Until the earth is swallowed hollering” – is followed by a 7-syllable question: “How low can I get today?” Whether or not “low” refers to depression, there’s undoubtedly a game of numbers being enacted here. The next four lines follow the same 7-syllable pattern, slowing the pace of the song down incredibly. And when we hear “So hallow-ed be thy name” we realise that an extra syllable has been stretched out to fit the rhythm. Suddenly this sonic crawl breaks into a breathless sprint, with Televangel’s beat darkening for dramatic effect.
In ‘Burning Lakes’ and ‘Coals’ we find the essence of Haunted Gardens. Both produced by Foxwedding, there is a candescent quality that unites these tracks, lending the heavyweight lyrics a lightness missing from Altars. ‘Burning Lakes’ is laden with references to cult movies (“These walls that I’m in are a tomb/ My thoughts are A Trip to The Moon”), art (Picasso, Bosch), literature (Basho, Marquis de Sade), and botanical metaphor (“I wanted verisimilitude/ But all of my sins are in bloom”) while ‘Coals’ adopts a more personal approach, linking his artistic skills with his personal life: “Watch ’em follow the trends off a cliff: fatality!/ Dear dad, look what you made out of me/ Hope you’re proud of me, shoe-string salary.” In the second verse of ‘Coals’ we are guided down the Gardens, past the rhododendrons, the rose-scented rotten fruit and onto the burning coals.
‘Daises’ opens with a Trap-like delivery and cutting lyrics: “The piss still makes the daisies grow/ Put a pistol to your face and pull.” Following a vocal sample from Game of Thrones (S2E3) Sadistik reverts to his hard-hitting customary style, featuring some of his darkest moments on the album: “When I’d pull my ugly ribs apart, target practice missed the mark/ Disembark, disembowelled, this is how I’ll kiss the stars/ I’m picking flowers now I’m in a garden/ Reminiscing been this way since kindergarten/ Wonder why this kid’s so guarded…” In ‘Man’s Best Friend’ two producers (Open Ocean & DEIRYN) share the credits. The smooth transition between the two beats would fool you into thinking a new track has commenced, perhaps a timely reminder that this album is incredibly cohesive. Playing with tempo again Sadistik offers a downbeat, melancholic verse on one beat and a visceral energy on the other.
The only interlude comes in the form of ‘Alcoves’. An alcove is a recess found in a room or garden so, in this case, an opportunity to take shelter from the lyrical rain. Produced by killedmyself, the haunting sample is lifted from ‘Return to Me’ (2006) by Sparklehorse. You might have also heard this when 9Tails rapped over it in ‘reset the clock’ (2017). While it might not be a brand new beat, it does deepen the experience of Haunted Gardens.
‘Sistine Chapel’ takes us into the realm of Sadistik’s dark love songs. The dual pattern – “You are art like Artemis…” (verse 1) | “I’m not art I’m garbage…” (verse 2) – puts you in mind of ‘To Be in Love’ from Phantom Limbs (2015), featuring the same symmetrical blueprint: “I love you, I’m an addict, you’re in my attic…” (verse 1) | “I love you, I’m The Devil, you’re in my head though…” (verse 2). The vocal sample that floats over the hook provides the sense of a duet. The producer (VVitch) has achieved something beautiful with this, and if you listen closely to the first hook at around 55 seconds you will hear that the first few words are almost subdued, before they are unveiled, as if from beneath the gossamer itself. This creepy connectivity is no coincidence. With ‘Gallows Hill’ we hear something of the older Sadistik peeking through, but once again it’s that second verse that goes for the throat. Strewn on the floor of this soundscape are more petals from the gardens: “Tulips are lackluster, bruises are lavender.”
The most poignant track on the album is ‘Koi’. A tribute song, Sadistik opens his heart and unwraps the bandage of metaphor he’s been weaving there since his father died:
“Your scent lingers like orange peels
It’s still your face when I see reflections
It cuts me open like koi gills
Underneath the mask is flammable like an oil field, still…”
Then suddenly the metaphors are dropped completely and we are invited into some of the most personal and intimate memories that tinge Sadistik’s thoughts: “I miss the sausage egg McMuffins/ You got me on my birthday to watch my face adjustments/ Father’s Days, holidays and functions…” This is not the Sadistik of Altars, the Sadistik who imagined himself in hell, smelling the smoke from the burning bodies above. This is a eulogy, a promise: “you live through me, you won’t fade away.” And if you consider the word ‘Koi’ as ‘Coy’, the experience of this song is made suddenly more special. It brings the shy nature of youth back into focus – think of that line “wonder why this kid’s so guarded” – and in a moment of delicate exposure we see the vulnerable, “flammable” artist “underneath the mask”.
Fittingly, ‘Koi’ blends into ‘Saints’, the second single. Reminiscent of ‘Orange’ (Ultraviolet, 2014), and with a reference to boot – “Stalagmites inside my mouth/ Ultraviolet fire-bound” – this song soars above the landscape of the album with the grace of a requiem. With production (again) by Foxwedding and vocals by long-term collaborator Lotte Kestner, ‘Saints’ lasts long in the memory for its stunning serenity.
The closing song ‘From the Gossamer’ turns a vocal sample from Pitch Perfect (2012) into a sombre note of loneliness. The lyrical skills are typically sublime and on-theme: “I made my manias change into azaleas/ That bloomed from all the wounds I never knew that you could save me from.” As the short verse fades out you finally hear the lullaby-like words dragging in the background, played out to a final few melancholic keys.
And so we exit the Haunted Gardens after only 34 minutes, looking back on it like a beautifully disturbing dream. In terms of his career, Sadistik has taken another huge step forwards, cultivating his cult following with an intimate, independently released project. For this writer, it will take something special to challenge this for Album of the Year.
Album rating: Highly Recommended (4-5 stars)
Poor: 0-2 Stars / Favourable: 2-4 stars / Highly Recommended: 4-5 stars