Fade In: Death Grips

Noise-rap group Death Grips doesn’t always have the same line-up. That’s probably an important thing to note. They usually consist of rapper MC Ride and drummer Zach Hill. Sometimes, keyboardist Andy Morin is considered a member. Sometimes, it’s a combination, or no one at all. The experimental duo/trio has made waves since their debut mixtape, “Ex-Military,” came out in 2011. Their albums have dabbled in noise, samples, politics, controversy, and all with unlimited energy. In honor of their new supposedly final double album, “the powers that b,” I’m offering the second Fade In Playlist. So for those of you who have heard the name Death Grips but have felt like it’s too late to jump into the game – don’t worry, I’m here to help. Below is a 10 song playlist with the duo’s well-known songs, most riotous acts, and a few deep cuts.

1) “You Might Think He Loves You For Your Money But I Know What He Really Loves You For It’s Your Brand New Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” Quite possibly the band’s loudest song, although you could make an argument for almost any other one too, the “Government Plates” opener with a Bob Dylan title serves as a proper introduction to the band. With the unsettling synth opener, to MC Ride’s inconsistent vocals, it’s a wild, drippy ride. Fourth album “Plates” suffered from MC Ride getting lost in the mix, and this song is no different, but the beat here is so head-numbing that it doesn’t even matter.

2) “I’ve Seen Footage” Arguably the band’s most famous song, “I’ve Seen Footage” is also one of their most straight-forward tracks. With a guitar line more typical of a punk song, Ride and Hill jump in for a song that’s more rock than anything. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still volume-pushing. Their sophomore album, “The Money Store,” was the closest they’ve gotten to conventional music. And it wasn’t very close.

3) “Come Up and Get Me” For the band’s third album, “No Love Deep Web,” they returned to a darker sound, albeit a more minimalist one. The album is marked in history as the one with Zach Hill’s erect penis on the cover. You know, that one. Death Grips signed to a major label just to screw them over, accepting a bunch of money for this album and then releasing it early for free. Opener “Come Up and Get Me” is similar to the opener on “Plates,” with a synth beat that almost makes you lose control of your senses.

4) “Black Quarterback” The first half of their supposed final album, “the powers that b,” that officially came out last month, actually came out last June. Titled “n****s on the moon,” it suffered from over-production and music that was too choppy and dense. Bjork samples were on every song, to little effect. But one standout from this album is the only one that heavily features MC Ride. His lone vocals start the song, before getting quickly swept up in a wild mix.

5) “Guillotine” Death Grips first release was the 2011 mixtape “Ex-Military.” It still serves as the most well-rounded example of their music, and possibly their best work. Second track “Guillotine” was the song that put them on the map. It’s a rare Death Grips song that holds back; instead of an aural assault, it comes in metrical bursts. MC Ride’s vocals come in crescendo-ing screams. It’s one of their most playable songs, even if it’s still surprising after 100 listens.

6) “Birds” The closest thing the band has done to a ballad, in the sense that Los Angeles and New York are close relative to the size of the Earth. This “Plates” track starts with a jarring synth rhythm, but gives way to a quieter guitar. This album has been their most experimental to date – it isn’t always in your face, and “Birds” is the best example. It’s a more reserved sound, if not with streaking bits of avant-garde. There’s little rhythm, but it’s a break from the overbearing nature of everything that surrounds it.

7) “Get Got” The third of their more known songs, “Get Got” opened “The Money Store.” It’s a rapid-fire song that’s more melodic than most Grips works. In the years since it’s release, the song has grown tamer, but when the album came out, it was something revolutionary. It’s still a great song, and one of their easiest to throw on at any time.

8) “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States” Maybe the most apropos title for a Death Grips song yet, this song opens “jenny death,” disc two of their recent “the powers that b.” This disc is far superior to “ni**as on the moon,” and it shows early. The group works as a collective on the disc, and this track is pure riot. It’s speedy to a fault, with Ride leading the group through a storm with the repeated title phrase. Refreshing to see that they can still put out a track like this.

9) “No Love” “No Love Deep Web” was marked by a more minimalist sound, and on one of the two title tracks, it couldn’t be more apparent – a few times, the music totally gives way to MC Ride’s a capella vocals. And even when there’s music, it’s more subdued than other Death Grips albums. The group plays around with holding back, letting the music hit at certain times instead of full-on. While not my favorite of their albums, it might be the most important in their repertoire.

10) “Blood Creepin'” My personal favorite Death Grips song, this one is also in the running for loudest track. The closer to “Ex-Military” doesn’t hold back with volume. Hill and Morin are in full force themselves, until MC Ride comes in, scream-rapping with vocals that were recorded louder than the usual balance, and name-checking Sonic Youth. This band is almost always in assault mode, but never more than this track. I think it might be the most quintessential Death Grips song – loud, arsonistic, earache-inspiring, and inexplicably melodic.

There’s been bands like Death Grips before. But for what we have right now, they’re the most experimental and controversial performance art group out there. Run the Jewels might be putting out even better albums, but for better or worse, they’re not pulling off the stunts and pure volume that Death Grips are. Thanks for listening, or not, they wouldn’t care and I’ll pretend not to. Death Grips broke up last summer, and never reformed it, so take their current tour and continual album releases as you please. I’m sure “jenny death” isn’t the last we’ll see from them. But we’ve already got more than enough to get angry and punished.

-By Andrew McNally

Death Grips – “The Powers That B” (n****s on the moon/jenny death)

Grade: C, B+

Key Tracks: “Black Quarterback” / “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States” “Why a Bitch Gotta Lie”

Let’s get this out of the way – this double album is two different albums. There’s no narrative or connecting piece. Disc 1, “n****s in the moon,” was released last year, while “jenny death” has just come out. So for this review, they’re being judged separately. And boy, are they different.

Disc 1 of this double album suffers from every problem that you can imagine noise-rap group Death Grips having – over-production, vocals too far lost in the mix, too choppy, and too sampled. Alt-avant-garde legend Bjork was excited to announce that her vocals were lent to every track on this album. But, they serve little purpose than to add to the noise. Often, like on the album’s best track, “Black Quarterback,” MC Ride’s scream-rapping is lost in the mix, almost hidden under Bjork’s unnecessary samples.

I do have to hand it to Death Grips for trying to incorporate Bjork on every track. Death Grips are essentially a novelty act with a political motive – the loudest, most boisterous and disruptive rap group in music. In this case, Bjork makes sense. And Death Grips have always suffered from the potentiality of repeating themselves, so to include the Norwegian legend on every track is something tonally new. But what results is an album similar to 2014’s “Government Plates” – musically interesting, but severely lacking in MC Ride’s frontman presence.

“jenny death” is a wholly separate album from “n****s on the moon.” The first disc, as problematic as it was, flowed from every song into the next. “jenny death” focuses on the songwriting on an individual level. There’s no constant flow between songs, as the band lets each develop on it’s own. On this disc, we get excellent amounts of MC Ride, permeating every track with his whisper-to-a-scream rapping. “jenny death” proves that for Death Grips, the parts are greater than the sum. Ride is on full force, leading the group fearlessly through every track. It’s significantly better, because of his presence. It’s heavy without being overbearing, and everyone involved is simply in sync with each other.

Death Grips’ legacy is one marked by experimentation. They’ve been a band of two, three, one, occasionally none. Last year, they broke up, during a string of dates opening for Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. Then they released “Fashion Weak,” and announced a string of tour dates. In Chicago, they didn’t show for Lollapalooza, and didn’t show for the headlining after-show, instead putting up a fan’s suicide note as a backdrop. They weren’t even in Illinois. On a major label, they signed, got a bunch of money, and then released their album for free (“No Love Deep Web”) without the label’s knowledge. The band’s public stunts and antics range from comical, to political, to deeply questionable. Their discography is similar – it starts great, only to quickly move into waves. “the powers that b” is both waves – the band at it’s worst, and the band at it’s best. This is supposedly their last album, and if it is, it’s a questionably memorable and definitely fitting way to go out. But there’s nothing that makes me think they’re done. They’re touring and releasing instrumentals, “breaking up” was just another stunt. I, like many fans, have learned to take these things in stride. They’re a great band; they’re not as great as they think they are. Still, the second disc of this album proves the band still has the energy, anger, and experimentation as they did in their beginnings a few years back.

-By Andrew McNally

Pharmakon – “Bestial Burden”

Grade: B

Key Track: “Bestial Burden”

One of my biggest regrets of 2013 was never getting a chance to review Pharmakon’s proper debut album, “Abandon.” Pharmakon, industrial-noise based project of Margaret Chardiet, is one of the harshest acts out there, and “Abandon” still serves as just a brutal listen start to finish. Due to unforeseen health circumstances, Chardiet had to cancel the first major Pharmakon tour and get emergency surgery. While she was recovering, she wrote a follow-up: “Bestial Burden.” The album is menacing and brutal, more inward and deprecating, but also with its moments of honesty and musicality.

I take notes when I listen to albums. For the first track, “Vaccuum,” my notes only say “just breathing.” It’s an intro, one that is just the sound of heavy, panicked breaths. Sure, it’s nothing compared to the sonic assault of “Abandon,” but it sets the album’s tone. This album is frantic, not just devoted to volume but to dissonance and to issues of health and well-being. The first true track, “Intent or Instinct” is noticeably more industrial than anything on “Abandon.” For eight and a half minutes it soldiers on – the first scream comes in around the three-and-a-half minute mark, and the industrial beat never sways, even as the screaming gets more intense.

This constant, industrial tone is one that stays throughout the album. It marks a departure from the abrasive synth blasts of before, although it is still an assault on the ears. But the album is structured in its noise. The tracks have steady, unfaltering industrial beats that oftentimes border on the verge of being rhythmic. Or at least, consistent. Pharmakon have always had a way of finding rhythms in pure noise, but this album does it more cleanly and more directly than before.

After Chardiet had to undergo emergency surgery before her first European tour, she began writing a more introspective work. This album is the result. It’s noticeable in the album covers alone – “Abandon,” with a pair of skinny legs (presumably Chardiet’s), covered in maggots, to this one – insides. This album is inside the body. Songs about health and the body. The title track has the repetition of the line “I don’t belong here,” coupled with laughing.

Both “Abandon” and “Bestial Burden” have bonus tracks, and they’re indicative of the albums themselves. “Sour Sap,” from “Abandon,” is a blistering 27 minute hell journey through screaming and pure white noise. But “Bang Bang,” on “Bestial Burden,” is the straightest song Pharmakon’s ever done. Sure, it’s about getting murdered, but it gives Chardiet a chance to actually sing, instead of screaming, and she has a pretty accommodating voice. The longest track on “Bestial Burden” is “Intent or Instinct,” at eight and a half minutes. Though longer than any of the non-bonus songs on “Abandon,” the album’s songs feel shorter. And they are – there’s more shorter pieces, instead of a few long ones. It allows the album to feel like a journey through the mind and body; a disturbing trek through a broken and disturbed being. Interlude “Primitive Struggle” is just a man coughing over an increasingly fast heartbeat – so simple, but so demanding.

To jump into Pharmakon, you have to know to expect screaming, slammed-down synth notes, and a perpetual feel of pure terror lurking around the corner. “Bestial Burden” takes an inward stance, and the result is more structured, but no less full-frontal. If “Abandon” challenged insanity, then “Bestial Burden” challenges injury. It isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s abrasive and brutal, almost palpable in its intensity. Industrial-noise is called so for a reason, and although the album might not be as immediately terrifying or numbing as “Abandon,” it is still confounding and abrasive, and only for the most committed and toughest listeners. Have fun picking through it, Pharmakon is here to stay.

If you like this, try: Spinning Death Grips records backwards or something, I have no idea.

-By Andrew McNally

Death Grips – “Government Plates”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it’s your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat”  “Birds”

Let me say that I was one of the many people complaining that last year’s album “The Money Store” felt too conventional. Sure, it had some of the best songs the band has recorded, and it still felt like genuine Death Grips, but there was that worry that signing to a major label had influenced the band to gravitate towards more radio-friendly hip-hop. Well, we were proven wrong later that year by “No Love Deep Web,” as the band leaked the album online just to spite EMI (and the famously explicit cover image). Well “Government Plates” is the most experimental album they’ve done yet – but it goes in the other direction. For the first time, MC Ride and Zach Hill take a back seat to Flatlander. The music is the focus on this album, and while it’s still urgent and shocking, it doesn’t exactly feel necessary.

My favorite Death Grips song is “Blood Creepin’,” the last song on their original (and perfect) mixtape “Ex-Military,” pretty much because it’s their loudest song. MC Ride’s scream-rapping over Flatlander’s alternately pretty and distorted synth is just a pure assault on the ears. There’s no assaulting on this album. MC Ride is barely present on some songs. It’s all about the experimentation, and Flatlander does a decent job staying abrasive without ever treading into EDM or anything, but the band could’ve pushed a little farther. The opener, whose title is taken from Bob Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” is so drenched in a synth rhythm that it’s impossible not to dance, with your mouth on the floor. But the next song, “Anne Bonny,” just doesn’t live up. For the first time, the album feels centered around a few songs instead of a cohesive effort. The pre-released “Birds” is certainly a stand out, subtle but the most experimental song on the album. And they end strong, with the winding “Whatever I Want (F**k Who’s Watching).” But the songs in between should be better. They’re never bad – they’re just sort of there.

The best example of how different this album is would be the song “Big House.” The song starts with a loopy, 80’s synth rhythm. Despite being under two and a half minutes, MC Ride doesn’t show up until the :52 mark. There’s a lot more music on this album, as the group further continues to question what it means to be a hip-hop band. It was inevitable that they would investigate the other side of the spectrum. MC Ride and Zach Hill being less of a presence on this album feels very intentional, because it’s just as challenging as anything they’ve done before. While it’s not challenging on the ears, it shakes the very foundations of hip-hop by having the frontman often take a backseat, and to have songs drop senses of rhythm for experimentation.

That said, I’m really not on board with the lack of Zach Hill on this album. He’s barely present. He’s easily one of the best drummers working today, and he could’ve done some very original work on this album, but there’s so little percussion.

It has yet to be announced if this is an actual Death Grips album or if this is the soundtrack they’ve allegedly been working on for Zach Hill’s film. Frankly, it could go either way. It almost feels like a soundtrack – it’s got a slight disconnect amongst the songs, with a strong beginning and end – but it’s a good listen no matter which it is. I can’t say Death Grips fans will love it on first listen, and I didn’t. But it might grow after some revisits. It’s just as different as everything they’ve done prior to now – they’re making the same statements. It isn’t quite as enjoyable, but it’s certainly not bad. They’re not songs you’ll be singing to yourself, they’re not songs that EMI would approve of, and they’re head-scratchers. And really, that what Death Grips is striving to be. The album doesn’t play out like it hopes to, and it’s more unmemorable than memorable. It’s still Death Grips, though, and by this point, I don’t think I could live without them.

Drumgasm – “Drumgasm”

(Photo Credit: exclaim.ca)

Grade: A-

There’s very little to say about this album, other than your ears are about to get audited. “Drumgasm” is the debut album from the instrumental percussion supergroup consisting of Janet Weiss (formerly from Sleater-Kinney, now drummer for Wild Flag), Matt Cameron (of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden) and Zach Hill (of Hella, Marnie Stern and, importantly, Death Grips). All three drummers are known for a brash, edgier, sound – Hill especially – so there was already going to be an intense factor to this album. What makes it all the more intense and ear-busting, though, is it’s total improvisation. The three drummers are heard at the beginning of the album chatting, trying to figure out a plan before they decide to just start playing and see what happens. Their voices aren’t heard again until after they finish, as they congratulate each other.

The album consists of just two tracks, both called “Drumgasm.” Both songs hover almost exactly around twenty minutes, and focus more on skill and intensity, rarely finding a groove or constant beat. There are extended moments where one drummer is featured more prominently than the other two, and although it’s impossible to determine who it is, it’s not unwise to assume it’s Hill, based purely on speed and intensity.

This album excels best as a concept – a truly improvised duo of brash drum pieces without names. If percussion interests you at all (as it does to me), then this album is like a undeserved present. There are call-and-response moments, there are moments where the three work together to berate the volume of your speakers, and there are moments where they fall out of line with each other and it sounds messy. It’s got mistakes and miscues. Of course it does, it’s improvised, and although those missteps aren’t appealing, they further build the concept. The album’s only real fault, a “fault” that shouldn’t be blamed on the musicians, and the same one that could be attributed to most jazz, is that listening is a commitment. There are no breaks, and although the listener gets sucked in, it is immediately lost when either track is paused (I streamed the album via Pitchfork Advance, and my internet connection was lost 15 minutes into the first track). This is a really original album, and it’s execution is nearly perfect. It is loud and abrasive, musically interesting, yet it is ultimately three people having fun and messing around in the studio, and I recommend it as both a fun, and a sonically complex and challenging listen. Somehow.

-By Andrew McNally