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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The Crystal Method – Tweekend

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The Crystal Method has been written off as inferior carbon copies of Big Beat, and also that they did a ‘dumb, American version of it’. Snobbish people had to convince themselves that the Prodigy made profound music involving social commentary and existential questions when in reality they did nothing but really, really catchy noise. At first this label of the Crystal Method is a bit deserved. Their debut is a collection of cool Breaks with some funky Sci-Fi sounds. It had a cool sound, but few songs. Here, though, they truly come together and cement themselves as canonical in the electronic genre. Tweekend is one of the reasons why Big Beat remains EDM’s best genre.

Since by now every artist in the genre cemented their sound – Prodigy with their loud rocking, Fatboy Slim with his smoothness, Chemical Brothers with their genre-bending, Crystal Method had to find some kind of shtick that makes them unique. The whole ‘simple breaks and cool sounds’ was rendered irrelevant in ChemBros’ debut, where they converted it into some of music’s best 30 seconds. So they try to find a new, defining sound here – and they mostly succeed.

They still sound like newcomers, but not in the bad way. It’s obvious their sources of inspiration include the aforementioned artists, not just the genres influencing Big Beat. You get here a more clearer picture of what Big Beat is, and why every soda pop commercial wanted this kind of music. Whereas the Prodigy made Breakbeat fueled by guitar noise, Crystal Method seeked the specific kinetic energy that the genres happened to create. The originators were inspired by other genres. Here, Crystal Method are directly inspired by the originators.

That’s the main distinction between this album and their debut. Now they don’t just want to bang, but to make music that works like a martial arts scene or a car race. It’s music that was made for video games of that era, when violence was cartoonish, cars were fast (and possibly shot rockets) and everything was larger than life. It’s the end of the retro-future. Our image of the future and technological development wasn’t of peace but of combat and lasers, but boy do we like it. The album cover fits the atmosphere of it, watching a world becoming more technological and being okay with it.

At this point you can compare it to Electro-Industrial, and Big Beat always shared similar sounds and influence – and an ability to fit ideally most video games and movies. Oh, and yes, composers were stupid enough not to ask the dudes from Front Line Assembly to score The Matrix. Whereas the Industrial movement was scared of that future, this music jumps into it. It’s inevitable, so we might as well party.

That’s why it manages to have a fairly aggressive, macho sound without copying the Prodigy’s rebel punk antics. A funky bounce is underneath most of the songs, even the noise blast that is “Name of the Game”. There they let Ryu rap about how awesome he is over Morello’s riffing. Aside from being a fantastic idea for a song, the bass is deep and womping underneath all that noise. On some tracks the funk is more prominent – if you can sit still to “Roll It Up”, you may want to check things with your doctor.

It’s funny that they were branded as a dumber American dumbing down, since they actually play more with atmosphere than most Big Beat artists. In fact, they lead back to Progressive House than any other in the genre. “Roll It Up” and “Blowout” have a continous structure and a looping beat that threatens to last forver. There are few actual riffs here, sometimes appearing on songs like “Murder” and “PHD” but serving the beat rather than taking the center stage. Many of the sounds here surrounded and engulf the listener rather than pound into it.

What was seen as ‘dumb American’ is just the band getting the essence of Big Beat, if not exactly making the best album in the genre. Then again their competition includes ChemBros, so it’s by nature difficult. This album distills Big Beat from the outside influence, keeping what’s important – Hip-Hop breaks, a Funk bounce, Techno structures and the aggression of Rock. That still gives them a lot of room to move even if they never threaten to break away, but what great songs – “PHD” with its slower funk, “Roll It Up” in how spacey it sounds, “Murder” gives a badass melodic hook and “Over the Line” shows they can also be beautiful and more introspective. Being raised on albums like these made me wonder why EDM isn’t supposed to be an ‘album genre’. Even the weakest tracks like “The Winner” still bang. Perhaps you can cut a minute here and a minute there, but this is one of those “If you don’t like it, you’re no fun” albums.

3.5 murders out of 5

Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

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Are Hip-Hop fans just failed literary critics?

I know I make fun of them a lot in my reviews, but the mind truly boggles. We’re talking about music. Music is an auditory experience. You can talk about the words all you want, but the question is whether it translates into good music. I can read the whole of American Tragedy over a dull Drone beat. The content would remain brilliant, but the outcome would be a dull and pointless experience.

Aesop Rock doesn’t do this completely, but he veers so close it’s frustrating. He’s clearly capable of being coherent, of providing lyrics that can be followed to a conclusion. “Lotta Years” is amazing. Aesop drops all pretensions, and tells in a straight forward fashion about feeling old and seeing how different the youth is. The imagery is both clear and poetic: “The future is amazing, I feel so fucking cold/I bet you clone your pets and ride a hoverboard to work”. It’s obvious and isn’t difficult to understand, but since when difficulty makes a piece of art impressive? What’s beautiful about poetry is how it sums up experiences and ideas in lines.

Not every song has to be this straight-forward. “Dorks” and “Rings” are less clear, but have lines that leap at you. “I think we’re all a pile of imperfections and flaws” is beautiful wherever it is, and it makes you want to explore what’s surrounding it. Even if it’s all gibberish, it’s gibberish that sounds cool.

You can only rap gibberish for so long before it becomes boring. Aesop’s lyrics are mostly gibberish. Analysis in Genius are interesting, but they’re analysis of lyrics, not music. None of these songs make me wonder what he’s talking about, make me want to dig in. I’ll gladly listen to an analysis of the lyrics, but at this point I’m not listening to Aesop’s lyrics but what people find in his lyrics.

For all his verbal and musical creativity, the mood remains the same. Aesop always sounds like he’s informing you how cool he is. That’s way “Molecules” is the second best track here, because for once it seems (It always seems, you can never be sure) that Aesop raps about how much of a badass he is. “Mystery Fish” does something similar. If Aesop goes about how out the box he is in the chorus, I don’t mind the nonsense in the verses. Every other song, soundwise, sounds like variations on these two. “Kirby” is supposed to be about his cat, but tonally it’s just softer than the other songs. “Blood Sandwich” – a song which is otherwise excellent – doesn’t feel like it’s about nostalgic stories about brothers.

It’s not a matter of mood. Sadistik mostly sticks to depressive and moody raps, but he can vary it. He goes from introspective to aggressive, self-loathing to contemplative. Aesop doesn’t have these tonal changes. The only difference is that some songs are less aggressive than others.

More frustration come from how Aesop hints at musical creativity but never pursues it. He can make a catchy song – “Rings” has a fantastic song that even if the lyrics were utter nonsense, the song would still be good. “Get Out of the Car” and “Blood Sandwich” remove all drums, and that helps take a more prominent role. There is also beauty in those ethereal beats. Other tracks are straight-up bangers – “Dorks”, “Mystery Fish” and “Molecules” are songs to blast in full volume.

Why then, doesn’t he take more advantage of it? Why make “Rabies” and “Kirby”, whose beats might as well not exist? If every track here had a hook as good as “Rings”, the album would’ve been pretty great. Aesop is charismatic enough to make the songs pleasant, but he refuses to take advantage of the auditory medium. He doesn’t realize the potential he has in mere vocals, instead he prefers to just rely his lyrics. Why not write a book, instead? I’m sure it’ll be interesting to read his lyrics on paper in my own pace. Listening to him isn’t fun. The ear is not interested.

Someday, maybe, Aesop will put out a great album where he cares less for conventions of Hip-Hop. He will realize he’s a talented producer, that hooks are great and that your lyrics are more interesting when the listener can breathe them in. It’s another self-indulgent effort, a glimpse into a great mind that doesn’t know how to communicate his ideas. I hope someday he’ll realize his potential, because I don’t need every song to be as good as “Lotta Years”. Just make them interesting as “Blood Sandwich” and you got a dedicated listener.

2.5 get out of the 5 cars

Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5