Sunday, 24 April 2016

Elzhi- Lead Poison

Image credit: The Come Up Show Flickr

Artist: Elzhi
Album: Lead Poison
Record Label: GLOW365/ Kickstarter
Release Date: 25th March 2016

In the last 18 months or so the notion of a band asking fans for money via Kickstarter campaigns has become more addressable. There is certainly a debate to be had; some may feel slightly disheartened that a band may ask for funds beyond those received via album sales and the live circuit. There's the tangible rebuttal that artists going to these lengths is a testament to how surviving in the music industry these, especially for the less corporate minded, is a battle largely fought weakened and down on one knee. 

Detroit rapper Elzhi is certainly a troop in the elite corps of the latter crowd. It's been five years since the former Slum Village member released his last full-length, Elmatic, and three years since he launched his Kickstarter campaign to fuel a new record. Personal turmoil and a stint in community service for selling weed certainly seem like viable setbacks, but perhaps some people's reservations about crowd-funded projects is actually getting a return on their investment. With Lead Poison, both fans who donated and hip-hop in general certainly get that. 

Upon the release of Elmatic, Elzhi's flow and ability to ride a beat became some of the most revered assets in underground hip-hop. His (by that point) lauded ability as a wordsmith was sealed in the consciousness of a wider scale audience too. Fans expecting a similar sonic scale may have to double-take Lead Poison on first listen; save for the classically soulful 'Friendzone' there are no "bangers" as such here. Everything is stripped back and reserved in order to give prominence to El's frankly magical lyrical talent. Instead of an inconsolable rift appearing between music and wordplay though, the more blissed-out and background fug-ish beats, which are at times totally beautiful and reflective, compliment the MC's zealous, heartfelt and fiercely intelligent poetic understanding. The fact that it requires patience and attention is a testament to its inclusion of an ingredient which all the best hip-hop records have; craft. 

It won't come as a surprise to any Elzhi fan that soul, honesty and a witty sense of personal trouble has been poured into Lead Poison. The soundbites of pen scratching paper are a clear reference to the toils of writing an (hopefully) entirely worthwhile project. Songs like 'February' and 'Hello!!!!' deal in a modest, often morose, metaphor-laced story-telling, while 'Alienated' documents a relatable and contemporary feeling of inward and societal disillusionment. 'The Healing Process''s drumless, ghostly bleepery walks a fine line between warm and suffocating, and 'Misright' is probably the finest example of Elzhi's meticulous understanding of rhythm, rhyme and emotion. 

Dated slice of vampire-based literature 'She Sucks' aside, it's necessary to pay acute attention to almost every moment on Lead Poison, and Elzhi certainly never makes it difficult for you to do so. Captivating, smart and yet down-to-Earth story telling set to a well-judged and carefully produced sonic backdrop, Lead Poison is an album that spans pretty much the whole scope of underground hip-hop. Not flawless, but pretty much always mesmerising. 


Key Tracks: 'Hello!!!!', 'February', 'Misright'
For Fans Of: Black Milk, Ka

Operators- Blue Wave

Artist: Operators
Album: Blue Wave
Record Label: Last Gang Records
Release Date: 31st March 2016

It's by now an assertion carved in stone, even within the snobbier climbs of the blogosphere and music industry, that music doesn't always have to be innovative to be worthwhile. Given that the title of Operators' debut LP, Blue Wave, may be an unashamedly self-aware bout of navel gazing with regards to the respective band members' own record collections, the desire to write decent, resonant tunes definitely presides over the want to open any new envelopes here. With that thought in tandem, Blue Wave is a record that mostly understands how to make great, simplistic song-writing strong. 

At almost every turn, Blue Wave is informed by its heritage; opener 'Rome' is full of reverb-laden, lightweight Cure-esque atmospherics. The title track is a languid, warm venture reminiscent of mysterious Scandinavian synth duo Studio covering a Wham! song, and there's pounding but warped Depeche Mode-esque darkness on 'Bring Me The Head'. 

For an album so reverential though it's actually the two most forward-thinking moments that prove to be highlights. 'Control' is a properly banging marriage of futuristic, Daft Punk-style roboticism and synth-work firmly based in the past, while 'Mission Creep' is propelled by tribal, off-kilter drumming and dissonant, slightly industrial-tinged keys. 

Though some tunes do pale due to being slightly more in awe and less forthright, much of the craft of Blue Wave is bouncy, catchy and intricate. There are hints of a proper progressive element to Operators' vision on the best moments here as well, meaning that future albums have the potential to be thrilling. 


Key Tracks: 'Mission Creep', 'Control', 'Bring Me The Head'
For Fans Of: Holy Ghost!, New Order

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Parquet Courts- Human Performance

Image Credit: ManWomanGradyBaby Flickr 


Artist: Parquet Courts
Album: Human Performance 
Record Label: Rough Trade
Release Date: 8th April 2016

In 2016, when The Fall aren't always particularly good at being The Fall, the blogosphere's self-imposed necessity to fill their shoes is bordering on the desperate. Parquet Courts are among those who have been shoved towards the pedestal, and ultimately your enjoyment of Human Performance, their fifth full-length, will boil down to how much you still need an annual dose of art-rock that thinks it's more innovative than it is. A few hypnotic moments aside ('Dust', 'One Man No City'), front-man Andrew Savage's dark, anxiety-laced lyricism can't save this from what it largely is; OK-ish background indie. 


Key Tracks: 'One Man No City'
For Fans Of: Pavement, The Fall

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Deftones- Gore

Image Credit: Graham Berry Flickr

Artist: Deftones
Album: Gore
Record Label: Reprise
Release Date: 8th April 2016

Pieces about the Deftones, whether they be considering new music or otherwise, tend to pay keen attention to the band's forward thinking prowess, or how singular they were within the Nu Metal movement with which they got swept up. For me though, it's a secret of personality, both in and outside of the studio. In the lead-up to the release of Gore, their 8th album, much of the hype centered around guitarist Steph Carpenter's disparaging comments about the track 'Hearts/Wires' (which, ironically, happens to be one of the best examples of how well-oiled and unified the band are musically) and the ensuing "are Deftones breaking up?" hyperbole, only to be shot down vigorously by frontman Chino Moreno as par for the course. It's not the first time that the push-and-pull dynamic between Chino and Steph has been amplified by the press, nor is it the first time that the same tension has informed some of their best work. 

In person Deftones are modest, subtly intelligent craftsmen, and that is perhaps the biggest secret to their longevity. Their music lives, breathes and exists in complete harmony with their individual characters and mannerisms. It's why their music can be cerebral, devastatingly beautiful and crushingly heavy at any given time. Though Gore can often take its time to unfurl the power of its charms and presence it offers a well-judged and generous helping of everything that makes THEM the Deftones. 

Even the most pedestrian moments on this record, like opener and initial single 'Prayers/ Triangles', have at least a snippet of almost all Deftones' idiosyncracies, the aforementioned tune flitting between reverb-drenched noodling, thick, anthemic chord progressions and Frank Delgado's synths acting (as they do for much of the album) as more of a percussive instrument, goading life out of the surrounding, deeper recesses. The crushing antagonism of 'Doomed User' will appease Deftones fans of all calibres; Steph Carpenter's most monstrously riffy moment working perfectly in conjunction with Moreno's huge vocal melodies and bitter delivery rather than either element overriding the other. 

Though they don't readily rely on the off-kilter side of their charm on this record, 'Geometric Headdress' is a stonking example of exactly that with Abe Cunningham's drumming providing plenty of tension in the bridge section while climbing up the intense mountain of liquid sonics with the rest of his band and Chino's lyrics exploring the human condition in direct but typically mystical fashion as he sings "vows, secrets, wake me when it's time to walk through...".

'Xenon' and the subtlety-smothered but increasingly massive '(L)mirl' are two of the more pathos-ridden highlights. In 'Phantom Bride' and 'Rubicon' they have one of the most gorgeous closing couplets of their entire career; the former a layered, slow-burning ballad made more expansive by a glistening guitar solo from Alice In Chains' Jerry Cantrell and the latter an anthemic, romantic slice of Smashing Pumpkins-esque alt.rock loveliness. 

Though it's more erratic than 2012's Koi No Yokan and less in-your-face than 2010's revered Diamond Eyes, Gore can claim to be another brilliant example of the chemistry and necessity of Deftones. In a world where subtlety in rock music can either be disastrous or almost non-existent, Deftones use tension, technical proficiency and a deep understanding of both human and musical dynamics to provide a platform for a hundred elements to feed off each other and inform progressive steps forward. Though it may take a while to become clear, in terms of what Deftones ACTUALLY do for rock music there's arguably no one to match them. 


Key Tracks: 'Phantom Bride', '(L)mirl', 'Doomed User'
For Fans Of: Failure, Smashing Pumpkins 

Nyck Caution- Disguise The Limit

Artist: Nyck Caution
Album: Disguise The Limit
Record Label: Cinematic Music/Pro Era
Release Date: 29th February 2016

Hip-Hop as an art form has not only been inspired by artistic ambition, but also by a deep sense of community. Some might argue that in recent years the genre has jumped the shark beyond the point of return to that grass-roots level, and in the mainstream at least (besides the works of Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco) that's probably accurate. Since the '90's the art of the hip-hop collective has been maybe the purest expression of this communal tangibility, and on the East Coast of America New York's Pro Era (fore-fronted by Joey Bada$$) are the most state of the art embodiment of that old-school inclusiveness. Nyck Caution is the latest member to step out with an ambition of defining himself, and Disguise The Limit provides character, backbone and emotion in spades. 

Even since Bada$$ started to nab the limelight, the sense of Pro Era as a brotherhood has never escaped the members' respective musical ventures. Joey, Kirk Knight and Chuck Strangers all make appearances here. The mixtape title is a reference to a lyric written by Capital Steez, a now legendary member of the crew who tragically saw fit to take his own life on Christmas Eve in 2012. Individual flare has always been the group's calling card and right from the get-go on Disguise The Limit, Caution provides us with a rapid-fire, captivating and sometimes deeply personal insight into his life. 

Opener 'The Pursuit' sets the record's "artful but banging" tone in the woodwork, Caution immediately exposing his gritty New York sense of reality as he spits "breaking these shackles off my ankles 'cause they're tryna define me". His lyricism, as exemplified by 'Inspire The Escape' isn't always the most singular or verbose, but the soul with which he raps is what carries these tunes. Production ambition is occasionally a melting pot of gold on the table as well; the ambidextrous jump from noisy, dystopian boom-bap to more classic, piano-lead East Coast fervour on 'Crucifix' leads into the rather nightmarish depths of 'Basin', which sees Caution at his most unhinged as he raps of the pains of sleep deprivation and paranoia. 

His rapping ability can't really be called into question at any point, but like a lot of underground MC's it's when he's at his most vulnerable that he conjures the most vivid imagery. The love-lorn break up of 'Just In Case' leads into the tangible sadness of 'Somebody', which finds Caution talking about the loss of his father and how he found relief in rapping; a sensation relatable probably to anyone who has searched for release in an activity. 'Out of Reach' explicitly recounts the events of the night Steez died and seems all the more close-to-home given the recent feud between Joey Bada$$ and fellow New York MC Troy Ave around that very issue. 

Disguise The Limit doesn't necessarily offer anything one couldn't find elsewhere in terms of sonics or even emotions, but the personality and zeal with which Caution raps is what makes them captivating and occasionally heart-rendering. It both fits the Pro Era aesthetic mold and flows with individual character. Again, that's by no means a new perspective on Hip-Hop, but when it's done this well it's refreshing and exciting to hear. 


Key Tracks: 'Somebody', 'Out of Reach', 'Church'
For Fans Of: Joey Bada$$, Dessy Hinds 

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Kendrick Lamar- untilted unmastered.

Image Credit: The Come Up Show Flickr 

Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Album: untitled unmastered.
Record Label: Aftermath/Interscope
Release Date: 4th March 2016

The most verbose and intricate song-writers in Hip-Hop often deliver their craft witha  dgeree of mysticism. Whether it be through artful production, metaphor-laden politicism or layered expressionism, club culture has ensured that said kind of hip-hop isn't a viable mainstream option. Every time Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar releases new music it feels like an event, but untitled unmastered., a raw and hop-scotch collection of tunes suddenly unleashed without any fan-fare feels like a step away from the limelight, almost a mockery of music industry politics (and in a far more sincere way than the release of Drake's If You're Reading This It's Too Late last year). 

Though there definitely is a concept behind the eight tracks here, there's not a particularly distinct flow or obvious reasoning behind the structure, which may in itself be a tentative right hook to the whole idea of rush-releasing a record. One could spend hours debating the social constructs and importance of a new Kendrick Lamar album, and untitled unmastered.'s deliberately hap-hazard visual body makes an obvious reference to its perceived reception. The most likely outcome is that these are nowt more than left over slices of tape real from recording sessions some time between 2012's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and last year's To Pimp A Butterfly, as the respective track's date-embedded titling suggests. 

Even without any obvious pursuit of profundity, the music on this record sees Lamar executing his oeuvre and musicality as creatively as he always has. 'Untitled 01's surreal atmosphere provokes almost parallel universe-esque imagery with Lamar sending forth slick-tongued references to the Kremlin and Beethoven's 'Symphony No.4'. 'Untitled 02' shows off the breadth of his vocal colourfulness, veering from Chance The Rapper-esque sing-rapping to rapid fire spitting to energetic zeal. His role as the voice of reason for modern race relations comes to the fore on 'Untitled 03', which also casts a disdainful stone at the music industry's delicate windows; "What did the white man say? Tellin' me he's selling me for just £10.99, if I go platinum I do the company fine". 

'Untitled 06' envelopes itself in soulful two-step funk and showcases Lamar's penchant for raw and live musical senstivity, which is continued by the 8 minute opus 'Untitled 07' which travels through eerie, bass heavy trap to vintage West Coast swagger to comedic acoustic jamming. Best of all though is the closer, a catchy slice of cosmic synth-funk that sees Lamar taking a swipe at less culturally sensitive and diverse MC's; "We all came on a boat looking for hope, and all you can say is that you're looking for dope". 

Lamar is at the absolute peak of his relationship with the media so untitled unmastered.'s spontaneity is welcome as an aversion to any institutionalized seediness or posturing. It's the first big-time Lamar release which, on a musical level at least, doesn't require a deep reading. It's not all totally golden but largely it's an expose of just how genuinely brilliant Lamar's compositional sensitivity is. 


Key Tracks: 'Untitled 08', 'Untitled 03', 'Untitled 07'
For Fans Of: Outkast, Phryme

Sunday, 3 April 2016


HOWLAND are a four-piece band from the South Coast of England (based in Brighton and Southampton respectively), and 'Callout' is a sun-kissed, upbeat slice of personal power-pop that feels as though it would be at home sound-tracking a '90's skate montage from the West Coast of the states as it would a summery suburban backdrop to a garage recording session in dead-end England; all 3/4 length shorts and emotionally confused youthful exuberance. Coming on like a slightly less fuzzy Dinosaur Jr. with a quintessentially British backbone, it's a track that's sure to be both a live favourite and a summer jam with plenty of replay value. 

You can stream the track via the band's soundcloud page here. The band are also heading out on the road next week, and have secured dates at some prestigious venues like the Camden Barfly and Southampton Joiners, so make sure you get to one of those if possible.