Death Grips – The Powers That B [2015]

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Death Grips is a band that has continually defied and deformed any box or expectations that have been placed upon them. From leaking their own album while signed to Epic, dropping off of tours at a moment’s notice, and continually shifting their sound into ever more esoteric realms, they’ve become an entity that is at once fascinating and nearly impossible to define. So perhaps it’s not shocking that when they set out to release a double album, they broke the rules yet again – originally releasing the first half of The Powers That B, Niggas on the Moon in June 2014, then promptly breaking up. The second half, Jenny Death, was still promised to drop by the end of the year, but didn’t actually materialize until now, three months into 2015. But now that it’s finally surfaced, and the chorus of “JENNY DEATH WHEN?” has come to a rest, The Powers That B can be looked at and enjoyed as the full body of work it was always meant to be.

The first disc of The Powers That B, Niggas on the Moon, is the most distinct piece of work in the band’s discography. Here, Death Grips have ditched the usual bravado and confrontational attitude that has fueled the vast majority of their music, and in its place is a glitchy, paranoid piece of electronica that plays like a sort of digital purgatory. This is the cleanest, most clinical sounding music the band has ever made, throwing out the banging distorted synths and massive drum beats and replacing them with skittering, densely layered drum lines and synths that sound like muzak for Hell’s waiting room. It’s a taught, paranoid listen, and the constantly shifting song structures and Bjork’s shredded vocal samples keep the listener on their toes. In fact, the entire album purposefully runs together, segueing together seamlessly and making it nearly impossible to tell when one track ends and another begins. It feels like improvised, stream of consciousness music at times, jumping from one idea to the next almost as soon as they’re thought of. The same goes for Burnett’s cryptic lyrics, which throw aside the ‘badman’ character he usually plays in favor of fragments of thought, poetry that barely hangs together and feels all the more urgent for it. There are precious few moments of clarity in his lines, precious few lyrics that aren’t obfuscated by a soup of words, and this dissonance is belied by (or even emphasized by) its calm exterior delivery. In its entirety, Niggas on the Moon is like the panic attack of a deeply introverted and paranoid individual, the constant noise of thought being represented by the fragmented lyrics and music that barely holds together, shrieking and coiling and unwinding at a moment’s notice. It’s a journey into the mind of someone who has allowed their thoughts to venture into ever stranger avenues, outside the channels of ‘normal’ thought and into something more abstract and sinister, yet is almost (yet not quite) calm on the exterior. Songs like “Billy Not Really” and “Black Quarterback” barely cling to a shred of normality, with their hooks fighting to surface against the push and pull of the dense beats, and “Have A Sad Cum” is a fractured duet between the shredded vocals of both Bjork and Burnett. There isn’t a single moment in the album’s 35 minute run time where the claustrophobia lets up, until the entire beat finally falls apart in a cascading wall of broken noise at the end of “Big Dipper”, setting the stage for Jenny Death.

If Niggas on the Moon is a trip into an introverted mind, then Jenny Death is its polar opposite, the yin to its yang. Jenny Death is worlds apart from its other half, blasting out of the gates with the familiar cacophony and aggression of the band’s past with “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States”. Everything you would expect from Death Grips is here and is blown out to macroscopic proportions: every beat is louder, every guitar and synth is more distorted, and Burnett’s voice is pushed to its absolute limits, cracking and rasping like that of some manic preacher. Perhaps the most striking feature of Jenny Death is that it’s the first Death Grips album to dip back into previous territory, sounding like Exmilitary‘s older, more psychotic brother on tracks like “Turned Off” and “Beyond Alive”. Because for the first time since that album, electric guitar is a major feature of a large number of the songs, provided by Nick Reinhart of fellow Sacto group Tera Melos. But unlike Exmilitary, the guitar work here lends a psychedelic edge to these songs, giving the music an almost upbeat and celebratory feel in the midst of its aggression. It also helps distinguish the songs, because where Niggas on the Moon is a seamless chunk of claustrophobia, Jenny Death is laden with hooks both vocal and instrumental. And guitar isn’t the only live instrument present, either – in the past Death Grips have relied mostly on electronic drum samples and drum machines, giving them a colder, harder edge. But on Jenny Death, drummer Zach Hill has finally taken the frenetic drumming that distinguishes the band’s live performances and laid it down over these songs, lending an even more ferocious and chaotic edge to their sound. And where its other half is cloaked in cryptic poetry and stream of consciousness ranting, Jenny Death‘s lyrics are much more personal and clear. Here Burnett returns to the style of lyrics he employed on the band’s first three albums, throwing shade at those around him and at the corrupted workings of a society he’s never fit into, while simultaneously reveling in his outsider status. But that’s just where it begins. As the album progresses, the lyrics slowly shift from the extroverted and violent to exploring depression and isolation, culminating in the penultimate track “On GP”. Burnett’s lyrics have never been clearer or more personal than they are here, depicting his struggles with suicidal thoughts and depression, stating that he only stays here for the friends and family he would destroy by destroying himself. This track is the true dramatic conclusion to the disc, building up, dropping out, and building up again to buoy the intense lyricism, breaking into a crescendo of noise that leads into the stuttering instrumental “Death Grips 2.0” (which is the only track on Jenny Death that recalls Niggas on the Moon). This song doesn’t end the album with any sort of cathartic resolution, but rather feels like it’s raising more questions than answers, feeling like it should lead into something else altogether (which from the title, may just be the point).

This duality of sound throughout both halves of The Powers That B is very deliberate, creating a clear contrast between their most introverted and most extroverted tendencies. Niggas on the Moon is a paranoid, dense, and unsettling slab of electronics, while Jenny Death is the extrovert trying to beat its problems into submission with the brute force of huge beats and walls of noise (yet ultimately failing, as the vocal-less final track suggests). Each disc of The Powers That B represents one of the furthest extremes of Death Grips’ sound, from the glitchy, distorted electronica of Government Plates to the most aggressive and in-your-face moments from No Love Deep Web. It’s also a good parallel to Burnett himself, who is so quiet and reserved in interviews, yet transforms into a primal animal on stage, conquering his Ego and living his Id. But on a much more surface, obvious level, The Powers That B also delivers both the most interesting and experimental material of their career as well as the most immediate and aggressive. From the opening moments of “Up My Sleeves” until the final skitterings of “Death Grips 2.0”, The Powers That B is an intense roller coaster ride of varying emotions and styles. If this is truly the band’s last album, there is no way that they could have gone out with a bigger bang, having blown every one of their traits out to the extreme and putting them on full display. It’s a proud piece of work, summing up everywhere Death Grips has explored in the past and pushing them into new territories at the same time, a (possible) final monument to the journey this band has brought us along on since 2011.

Key Tracks (Niggas on the Moon): Up My Sleeves, Billy Not Really, Black Quarterback

Key Tracks (Jenny Death): Inanimate Sensation, Turned Off, The Powers That B, On GP

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Thrice – Vheissu (2005)

     

     In the early 2000’s, the post-hardcore scene was blooming. Coheed and Cambria, Thursday, Saosin, At the Drive In, and many others were releasing genre-defining records and building huge fan bases. Among these bands was Thrice – a 4 piece hailing from California, who had been slowly working their way up from the smallest of clubs since 1999’s Identity Crisis. By 2003, with the release of The Artist in the Ambulance, the band had built up a huge fanbase and was now signed to a major label, in the form of Island Records.

     From Identity Crisis to The Artist in the Ambulance, Thrice had developed considerably. As songwriters they had grown to incorporate more mature themes into their music and lyrics, discussing politics, faith, and philosophy. And musically, they were now delivering pummeling drop tuned riffs that were markedly different from the loose, frenetic leads and lines from their earlier work. It was starting to become obvious that this band was the real deal, who cared more about chasing their muse and creating meaningful music than selling records.

     This trend finally culminated in what was their biggest sonic leap yet in 2005, with the release of Vheissu. Vheissu is what happens when a band pushes their boundaries as far as they can go, delighting in the process of tearing them down and replacing them with wide open pastures.

     So, perhaps ironically, the opening track is a complete misdirect. Image of the Invisible is the most pre-Vheissu sounding song on the album, mostly keeping in line with their previous post-hardcore sound, but scrubbing away most of the furious riffs that marked that style. This contrast and misdirect is part of what makes this such an amazing album, though. If not for that brief reminder, it would be hard to believe that this was the same band.

     Vheissu reveals it’s true self with the second track, Between the End and Where We Lie. A moody track based around a fragile keyboard line, yet propelled and contrasted by Riley Breckinridge’s heavy drumming, it was the slowest song they’d recorded to that point. Drenched in reverb and sparse layers of guitar, it’s an introspective track that soothes in the verses and explodes in the choruses.

     Those qualities set a precedent for the rest of the album, where songs like ‘The Earth Will Shake’, ‘Atlantic’, and ‘Red Sky’ find them toying with a newfound sense of dynamics and emotional push/pull. Here, Thrice’s writing is no longer riff-centric, rather it is based around varying keyboard, synthesizer, piano, and even music box lines (found on the aptly titled ‘Music Box’). While not completely relegated to the background, the electric guitar takes on much more of a supporting, chord-based role than a lead one for the majority of the album. This alone makes Vheissu an incredibly diverse album musically, with this range of new sounds allowing them to go in completely fresh directions.

     It would be easy to say they were selling out by softening their sound and including this range of new sounds and textures, especially considering how heavy some of their earlier work could be. But that argument falls apart once you notice that, despite all the changes on the surface, this is still very much Thrice. Songs like Hold Fast Hope and Image of the Invisible still evoke shades of the punky, heavy band they were before, but now they’re filtered through the huge sound of a band like, say, Deftones. And their sense of emotion is still intact as well – songs like For Miles and Like Moths to Flames simmer anxiously, and then explode into twisted, angry pleas. Dustin Kensrue’s sense of lyricism is just as intelligent and creative as ever, and finds him mining new lyrical territory as well. The Earth Will Shake puts himself in the shoes of a prisoner on a chain gang, Of Dust and Nations ponders on materialism and knowing what you should truly value, and For Miles talks about recovering from emotional trauma and recognizing the hurt in others. Thrice made a concentrated effort to step out of their comfort zones, and by and large, it worked wonderfully.

     From start to finish, Vheissu is a journey. In every sense of the word, it’s an ‘album’, meant to be heard from start to finish. It’s the type of listen that you can lose yourself inside of, creating its own little world without breaking character at any point. It’s an album characterized as much by ambience and texture as it is aggression and power, slipping easily between explosive codas and huge power chords; introspective synth lines and near-whispered vocals. Every song showcases something new for the band, even when they revisit familiar territory, and that’s what makes this such a worthwhile and fascinating record. Few bands ever have the courage to take such a bold leap away from the sound that made them famous, and even fewer manage to pull it off so well that it comes to define them. With Vheissu, Thrice put themselves ahead of the pack, making music far outside the scene that they were born in, and set them on a creative course that allowed them to try out many new sounds, instead of stagnating within one. Vheissu is an often overlooked album, but if you do stumble upon it, you’ll discover one of the very best albums written in the first decade of the new millenium.

Key Tracks: Red Sky, Of Dust and Nations, For Miles, Music Box

Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

Photo Credit: Radiohead

In Rainbows is Radiohead’s seventh album, released in 2007. It comes from a band with a long history of taking chances and experimenting with their sound, never releasing something that sounded like a clone of their last album. And true to fashion, In Rainbows sounds like nothing they’d done before – and like everything – all at once.

Radiohead consists of five members, Thom Yorke (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Jonny Greenwood (guitar, Ondes Martenot, effects), Colin Greenwood (bass guitar), Ed O’Brien (rhythm guitar/effects), and Phil Selway (drums). Most people know the band for their biggest hit, “Creep”, and brush them off as just another alternative rock band from the 1990s. However, beyond that, they developed into a band with a penchant for pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable from a rock band, and that sense of daring is probably the biggest reason why I enjoy their music so much.

In their previous work, they morphed from a British alternative rock band, into something resembling the offspring of Pink Floyd and Aphex Twin – expansive textures and paranoid, insular electronica. Before the release of In Rainbows, they had largely eschewed the melodic quality of their earlier work, which alienated the band to a lot of casual listeners. But with this album, they managed to make something that blended both that strong melodic sense, and the lush textures that they had become more known for. The first song on the album, “15 Step”, is a good example of this – it starts off with a looped electronic drumbeat (that’s strikingly danceable), before Yorke’s high, melodic vocal line comes in. From there, a clean, jazzy guitar line enters, adding texture, but still leaving more than enough space for the bass guitar and vocals to breathe and mingle.

Texture and space are in fact the two biggest keys to the album’s sound. After the short, uncharacteristic burst of fuzz-guitar rock on “Bodysnatchers”, the album quiets down into songs like “Nude” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, which bring in slower tempos, plaintive melodies and lyrics, orchestration, and warm, rich instrumentation. The songs ebb and flow with keyboards and strings, groovy bass lines, and well-placed guitar work that neither dominate the songs, nor sink into the background. Right when you think “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is about to explode into climax, everything but Yorke’s vocals fall away, and when “Jigsaw Falling into Place” starts off with a quiet acoustic guitar intro, it’s the one that launches into a powerful and cathartic resolution halfway through.

Another facet of this album is how subtlety complex it is. At first listen, the songs sound fairly simple, but on repeated listens (and a good pair of headphones), it reveals more and more layers of sound. Keyboards, guitars, xylophones, drum machines, and reverb build to create a full range of sounds, and makes it a rewarding album to dig into time after time. Radiohead also sounds like they have embraced jazz more than on any other album, with the song “House of Cards” being the most prominent example of this. The guitar comps a jazzy chord progression along to Selway’s restrained time-keeping, which also adds a sparse, relaxing atmosphere to the song.

The title “In Rainbows” is more than perfect for this album – it has more vibrancy and color than any other album in their catalog. It doesn’t follow the normal Radiohead format of veering away from the expected on each album, but still manages to be surprising. They managed to combine the cold, computer-generated effects of their albums Kid A and Amnesiac, with a more natural, human element, and a sense of melody that they’d hidden away for nearly a decade. Even though this review sounds cold and professional, everything I have talked about here contributes to why I love this album so much – as much as I enjoy their more electronic, expansive songs, I am a sucker for the melodic, human feeling that their first three albums had. All of the different layers intrigue me as a musician, because they work together in ways that are subtle and sometimes almost imperceptible, but in a way that if they were not there, you would definitely notice. And unlike some of their moodier work, In Rainbows isn’t as emotionally draining to listen to, compared to Kid A or Hail to the Thief. It’s a much easier record to reach for anytime, and still get something that sounds like Radiohead. All in all, In Rainbows is a feat – ten years after their most critically acclaimed album, long past the prime of many other bands, they pulled out an album that stands alongside their best work, and in the light of The King of Limbs, is a like a send off to what Radiohead was, letting them adventure off into more obscure formats and sounds.