Swollen Members – Dagger Mouth

DAGGER

This can’t help but feel like an apology for their previous, atrocious album. For an album that’s so apologetic it also sounds like a roaring comeback that threatens to be their defining work. It’s an odd contrast that doesn’t really make sense and makes you wonder what Armed to the Teeth was all about anyway if they’re doing the complete opposite here.

Swollen Members are about classic Boom Bap only with more charisma. Instead of mumbling about New York and other such cliches, they flirt with horrorcore while never becoming as obnoxious as Necro. This versatility let them either slide completely into the genre, take it into more personal places (“Bad Dreams”) or to just expand beyond the typical boundaries of Hip-Hop. That’s why Black Magic is so good and why it received such a lukewarm reception. Before Kanye West’s new found fame, the only way to make an acclaimed album was to imitate crappy New York rappers I won’t bother to name.

So when they dropped Armed to the Teeth, it made no sense except that the people at Subnoize used it as a device to spread their misogyny. While the addition of guitars were cool, tracks like “Porn Star” were not. It’s exactly what I feared and what we got. For some reason they think that if they hate women, then every artist on Subnoize must sing about hating women. Even beyond the occasional misogyny the album lacked spirit. The only time it did, it’s because it had song titles like “Reclaim the Throne”. Clearly, they weren’t over the whole D&D thing.

From the beginning there is a suicidal fatal darkness to this album that never lets go. The opening track goes off about emotions and fear. “The Shining” talks about a spinning world that makes you feel lost. Just look at the song titles from that track on – “Devil”, “The Predator”, “Chemical Imbalance”. Swollen aim for a balance between the murder raps of Necro and the depressive introspection of Sadistik – self-harm as a sign of strength.

The result is absolutely badass and fun. It’s over-the-top, yes, but its darkness doesn’t mean a lack of fun. Swollen just trade in being warriors to being creepy dudes. “Night Vision” and “Chemical Imbalance” are the pumping heart of the album, where Mad Child swings from self-hating to bragging, often in the same line. You can hear his passion, too. He repeats the same rhymes a few times, but its his fury, his anger, how it’s directed at everyone (including himself) and no one at the same that makes the verse of “Night Vision” one of the best verses in Hip-Hop ever. Some rappers may have written more clever rhymes, but such passion is rare, especially in Boom Bap.

You can also look at this album as not just Swollen taking their style to the extreme, but also pushing the Boom Bap genre to actual darkness. Rob the Viking also shines here, knowing that the lyrics would be nothing without creepy sounds. While they don’t really go the danceable route – “Fire”, “Sound of the Drum” and “Devil” are the only times they raise the tempo and let the drums kick hard – he creates great soundscapes. Odd, unclear sounds surround these songs. A generator-like hum makes “Night Vision” way creepier. Rob knows that if the drums don’t take a central place, something else must. His atmospheric is actually atmospheric and enveloping. Calling it ‘camp’ is just silly. There was no other way of achieving this besides piling the odd noises.

Mad Child is the star here, which can sometimes be sad. All of the struggles he talked about in Armed to the Teeth are here out in the open. It might as well be an exorcism of his demons. Some songs are solo, like “Chemical Imbalance”. That leaves Prevail a bit in the dust, since his lyrics don’t have that personal nature but just cool imagery of satanic rituals, killing people, the undead and general darkness. He can never capture Mad Child’s fury who raps like a man possessed. It’s most apparent in “Night Vision” where his verse is almost useless. That said, he’s still an integral part. Without him this would become an incoherent and self-centered work. Prevail’s slightly more lighthearted approach is necessary.

The best thing about this album is how it manages to be unique, a whole piece without straying too far. Traditional Hip-Hop is an extremely minimalist genre so you get a lot of rappers saying nothing over white noise. It’s almost frightening how similar most of the canon is. Swollen Members don’t pull any tricks here, it’s just they got a more interesting concept and more passion. In the end Hip-Hop is sound art, and no matter how clever your lyrics are you need passion and to rap with conviction. Dagger Mouth is a strong contender for the best Boom Bap rap album ever. It actually takes advantage of the genre’s style and limits. It uses the minimalist beats to let the rappers go crazy, so the rappers actually go crazy. At the same time the beats remain important, providing odd sounds that change the tone of the songs – whether it’s the aggressive “Night Vision”, the moody “Chemical Imbalance” or the self-congratulating “Mr. Impossible”. I want to blame Subnoize for this album’s lack of success, but then again if they didn’t shat out Armed to the Teeth they wouldn’t feel the need to apologize and make a glorious comeback.

4 daggers out of 5

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(hed) pe – Blackout

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I was no naive at the time. I wanted desperately to like this. The album cover was beautiful. The word ‘blackout’ is pretty cool. The band’s name was badass and made no sense. Best of all, there were supposed to be one of the more Hip-Hop orientated Nu Metal. My previous experience with them was with Only in Amerika, which was good if you ignore how it treated women like the Japanese treated their specimen in Unit 731.

Something about this record felt off, though. Sure, the opening song was great and bizarre with its melodic-yet-aggressive vocals. Everything else lacked the punch, that Nu Metal chutzpah that (hed) pe did better than anyone else. After following them further into their career, the position of this album became clearer. It also explained why Only in Amerika was such a hateful record towards women.

This was their normal record. Apparently, the label pushed them to make this. Making a more radio-friendly record means less profanity, less lyrics about partying and more straight-up rock about the general gloom of life. The fact the record still sounds at home in the Nu Metal speaks volumes about the band’s talent. The label couldn’t crush the party. Even while playing straight, the band is weirder than their peers.

The key to this is the band’s natural talent. On previous albums, it could be said the genre pushed them to great moments. Here, they’re dealing with a duller sound that only talent can lift up. Check that ominous riff in “Dangerous”, that jerky guitar line in “Bury Me” or the frantic bassline in “Flesh and Bone”. Whenever a Nu Metal band normalized their sound, they had no such moments. They kicked ordinary riffs. (hed) pe can still finds unique sounds even when making generic gloom rock.

Jahred’s vocals are, of course, an integral part of the charm. His vocals are just as versatile as last time. He raps a little less, but he still jumps freely from style to style. It sometimes even sounds like there are two vocalists in the band. On “Suck It Up”, his singing voice goes ridiculously low. I talk a lot about the balance between melody and aggression which Nu Metal bands are great at capturing. That song is another perfect example of how it works.

He does sound defanged. The title-track should be an anthem against conformity, about trying to fit in. Jahred doesn’t have the same bravado and conviction that made “Crazy Legs” so thrilling. He just sings. His voice is pretty, but is that what people call ‘inauthentic’? In the previous records, his personality dominated. Here, he’s just an extremely talented vocalist. The only time he sounds like the old times is in “Crazy Life”. That’s no coincidence, since it’s the one song that relies more on rapping and some hedonistic lyrics.

At least he has a beautiful singing voice. On the acoustic, Everlast-esque “Other Side” his voice is so pretty it doesn’t really matter that it must be insincere. If we learned anything from the Lostprophets fiasco is that music’s an act. Jahred’s act may not be the most convincing, but his natural charisma lifts up the already excellent melodies. No one else should perform “Revelations” or “Get Away”. Then again, who really cares about authenticity in Nu Metal? It’s a genre about partying and vague complains about life. Blackout may more serious than their previous album, but the title-track is still a banger.

There’s actually a good side to removing the band’s personality. In later records Jahred came off like a misogynistic rapist. How he didn’t get involved a sex scandal is a mystery to me. In fact, I’m sure he did his sure of sex crimes that just weren’t reported yet. Blackout is unique in the band’s discography. It has all the band’s main talents – the crushing riffs, odd sounds, genre-hopping, versatile vocals – without the obnoxious “Women are evil and I love sex” lyrics. It’s the one (hed) pe album I can listen to without squirming.

Despite defanging and normalizing the sound, the natural talent of this band lead to a strong set of songs. It may lack their unique personality, but then again their personality sometimes got in the way. Everything you need in a Nu Metal record – hooks, loudness, variety are here. Not every record can be as brilliant as (hed) pe’s self-titled, but each of these 13 songs should be on a playlist for a rock party.

3.5 crazy lives out of 5

(hed) pe – Broke

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There isn’t much left to do, or anywhere to go after (hed) pe’s self-titled debut. It was an explosion of Nu Metal – mixing angst and partying, Hip-Hop and sludge, melody, rapping and screaming without a care. They didn’t enjoy the success of their peers for a good reason. The album went in all direction and drowned in its own idea. It had no hit, no immediate hook. Only those who are used to such genre-jumping could’ve gotten into it.

One thing it did lack was hooks. They were catchy, but the songs didn’t revolve around them. That’s one direction the band takes in Broke. Another is fill a hole in the genre. Nu Metal is silly and exists for partying. Metalcore couldn’t replace the genre because it was too serious. Yet, no band exploited the genre’s potential as great party music. You occasionally got a “Got the Life”, but not many realized how fun all this jumping around from genre to genre can be.

Broke‘s main selling point is in its demeanor. It’s roaring guitar music about drinking, fucking and not giving a fuck. If it sounds ‘more mainstream’ than their debut, that’s because the concept needs hooks and catchiness. A progressive song like “Darky” is a lot of fun, but not something you’d play in a party. It’s too atmospheric and complex.

The band hasn’t lost any of their focus. Their executions are simpler, not reaching as wide but they don’t need to. The first five songs are all brilliant. “Waiting to Die” has growling and rapping at the same time, macho and self-pitying lyrics at the same. It’s literally the Nu Metal genre condensed into one song. “Feel Good” has the pseudo-socially conscious lyrics. “Bartender” has Boom Bap, a ridiculously catchy and feel-good chorus and an aggressive part. It was the band’s biggest hit, but it should’ve been bigger. With the Boom Bap beat and the joyous melody, it should’ve been a hit among those who liked Limp Bizkit but found the rest too grim. As for “Crazy Legs”, it’s one of the cockiest and obnoxious rock songs you’ll ever hear. It’s brillaint. When Jahred repeats over and over “You wanna slow me down?” the band sounds unstoppable, as if the later part of their career wasn’t going to happen.

The production is cleaner this time around, which helps showcase how versatile Jahred’s voice is. Critics occasionally paid attention to Nu Metal, so how hasn’t he gained acclaim as the genre’s best voice? Occasional misogyny aside (Which doesn’t rear its head here too much), he out-Patton Mike Patton here. More than any band, he mixes all vocal styles in the same song – “I Got You” features both singing, screaming and rapping. In rare instances, he does them all in the same time like in the aforementioned “Waiting to Die”.

There are two other candidates for Nu Metal’s biggest albums – the band’s own self-titled and Lostprophets’ debut. Since the former is too complex for outsiders and the latter was created by a notorious sex criminal, Broke may be the genre’s defining moment. There’s a little bit of anger, a little bit of gloom and a lot of venting frustrations with bullshit macho lyrics and genre-hopping. In general, it has everything you should want from a soundtrack to rock parties and frustration.

3.5 bartenders out of 5