Based loosely around Jeremy Bentham’s design for the Panopticon from the 1800s, the new album from CoN and KwAkE (better known individually as Confucius MC and Kwake Bass) focuses in on the claustrophobic feel of today’s society and how hard it can feel to escape. How, like in the Panopticon, eyes are always upon us. ‘Mental Note’, at the album’s centre’, explains this concept to a degree – and expands it to suggest that, through factors like social media, we as a society have begun to self-regulate our behaviour to fit into various social designs. But it’s also clear in the lyrics. Particularly in album highlight ’15 Minutes’, where Confucius MC really focuses in on the combination of social media and reality TV and how the ‘X Factor mindset’ has created a generation focused on image, struggling with low self-esteem, striving for likes and fame and momentary endorphin rush instead of long-term gain. ‘Fame is the flickering flame/You whisper its name/It dwindles/But many burn their hand trying to grip it in vein/In love with the illusion/Cosy and warm/With the line for what is real never openly drawn.’
It’s a theme that, in different ways, is across most of the album’s best moments. Opener and title song ‘Eyes In The Tower’ focuses on the way we are tracked through our phones and devices, how ‘data collection’ keeps us under the careful watch of the powers that be. ‘One In Three’, the album’s closer, considers how for many people our phone becomes ‘the only one who listens’ at the same time as discussing again the tendency in today’s world to chase fame and recognition through social media only to end up disappointed. These may, in some ways, feel like tired and much-repeated mantras – but it does feel like Con and KwAkE offer something different when discussing the subjects here.
Lyrically, then, this album is intense and brooding – a well-timed and well-measured insight into today’s climate. ‘Martin’, for example, also looks at the many things we have to fear in our day-to-day lives. But if you put all this heaviness aside, the thing that makes this album so successful shows the total opposite of the claustrophobic concept. The music, at its heart, feels totally free. Released on Shabaka Hutching’s label, there will be no surprise that there is an often loose and jazz-inspired feel to much of the music and it is the use of piano, percussion, and brass instruments that really make these songs fly. The bursts of trombone towards the end of ‘Eyes In The Tower’, the drumbeat and instrumentation that pushes ‘Dance In The Dark’ along, the glorious piano on ‘Greedy Drum’. It is these moments, and many others like them, that make Eyes In The Tower feel so endlessly captivating and involving. Mix those moments with the lyricism and we have a real hit on our hands.
And the album feels like it ought to be a hit. It’s concise, catchy, to the point – filled with powerful moments of insight and illuminating and exciting musical flourishes. Confucius MC and Kwake Bass both have their audiences – and both are collaborators that always bring a missing ingredient to the work of the people they share a studio with. Together on a full LP for the first time, they both seem to have taken things up another notch and I hope that will be matched with recognition and sales. It’s a cracking debut with a lot to say.
Words by Fran Slater