hfb - 3.2.15 -- 6.2.15 - Double your pleasure, double your Bjork
Mar 2, 2015 at 1:56 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 6


A Special Snowflake
Aug 2, 2010
Bjork  -  Vulnicura

It's something I remember well: my 10-year-old self watching Bjork's "Human Behavior" music video over and over, eyes wide and filled with wonder. Growing up, she was one of the few female artists I truly admired (the other being Paula Abdul, mostly due to her interactions with cartoon cats). Bjork. Even the name was tantalizing. She came from Iceland which may as well have been the moon to my young mind. Her beauty was somewhat uncommon yet instantly recognizable. In other words, she was perfect. In fact I distinctly remember wanting to be her as I looked at myself in the car's side mirror.
Here I am now: seven albums and several on-and-off-again periods of appreciation later.
Bjork's newest album, Vulnicura, practically appeared out of nowhere at the start of this year. Following a general announcement, the album turned up on the Internet just a few days later in what had to be one of the fastest leaks ever. Talk about a new record. In response to this, Bjork decided to move the digital release date forward several months. So here it is. Good thing she didn't choose to withhold it, too: this is her best project since 2004's Medulla. It's is an album that will surely win her new fans and put her on the radar of broader music circles thanks to entanglements with names like Arca and The Haxen Cloak, not to mention Death Grips. As more than the sum of its name drops however, Vulnicura sounds fresh but also timeless; the powerful music which lies therein makes it one of the big surprises of the year so far.
Yet the scale on which it takes place is decidedly less grandiose than Biophilia, Bjork's last project which was a project in the truest sense. There are no multimedia apps this time around, no specially created hybridized instruments, no educational displays about the natural world. Vulnicura arrives suddenly and unceremoniously. It inverts the former's cosmic scale, focusing not on finite processes within the infinite universe but rather the infinite within human finitude. It's a personal album structured around Bjork's recent break-up, the two halves representing the before and after states of being, and as such it focuses on loss and the interior void. Yet it also focuses on plasticity and resiliency. Vulnicura is about reconnecting with what's timeless.
"Stonemilker" provides an entry point into Bjork's world, starting things off with gentle strings and some of the catchiest vocals I've heard from her in some time. Gradually the strings swell, and an understated but effective drip-drop beat provides momentum for the track to flow into lush instrumental terrain. Vulnicura is filled to the brim with dramatic symphonic passages that swoon and soar. The next track, "Lionsong," has particularly great arrangements; Bjork's vocals are interwoven with violins and violas as the double helix of a skewed love ballad's DNA. Both singer and strings modulate up and down, weaving in and out of emotional weariness. Bjork conveys a subtle sense of desperation. It's all set to a beat which expands and contracts and sputters and shutters, controlled throughout by an expert hand.
The electronic elements throughout Vulnicura give it a distinct character. To that end, Arca's presence is definitely felt on production duties, though it mostly just complements and enhance's Bjork's artistic vision; nothing sounds out of place or even synthetic amidst the traditional instruments. "History of Touches" is otherworldly thanks to its beautiful looping electro mesmer and passionate lyrics. As if sensing the impending separation one night, Bjork recalls all of the loving moments spent with her partner, moments which now exist all at once---then and there---in a single transcendent instant. It all builds up to the defining event of this album, an event which is itself absent curiously enough from the narrative. The chronological labels for the tracks demonstrate this: 9 months before, 5 months before, 3 months before, 2 months after, 6 months after, 11 months after.
"Black Lake" marks the start of the 'after' period, and the album takes a darker turn as Bjork reveals her broken state. Her heart is the black lake. Mournful strings skim its waters while rhythmic pulsations lurk below the surface, far off and muffled at first but gradually rising. They breach. Powerful moments occur here as Bjork sings with tremendous force, moments that are accompanied by extended violin drones as if suspended in time. The electronics reassert themselves with buzzing urgency. Arca's touch is most palpable here, and while seemingly minor, these additions make the track feel as though it were coursing with energy. It helps the over ten minute long playtime go by more quickly than it ought.
My personal favorite track however is "Family." Co-produced by The Haxan Cloak, there's a definite dark ambient vibe felt in its spaciousness, lurching thud of a beat, and violins which sound vaguely like the moaning dead. This track is a monster. Bjork's vocals are distorted and stacked atop one another to frantic bow work, giving way to stunning drones that sound as though they could turn day to night. 'Haunting beauty' is the descriptor that is most in the foreground of my mind as the track draws to a close. Next up is "Notget," the recurring introduction of which reminds me of something from a folktale film, something most likely off of a Sergei Parajanov soundtrack. Arca's contortionist electronica creates fascinating shapes to populate these mysterious woods. Burrowing insects and crawling spiders. It's a similar aural setting to Zola Jesus' last full length, though here it's much more intricate and captivating in my opinion.
The last three tracks lack any sort of temporal designation; perhaps these exist beyond the before-and-after of the previous six? Perhaps Bjork has finally moved on with her life, having found her way out of the woods. Indeed, the tone of this concluding trilogy is much more optimistic. "Atom Dance" is fittingly particulate in its sound. Lyrically, there's a broader perspective that examines the workings of love and existence, with Bjork revisiting the theme of 'togetherness' again and again. Antony provides his own vocal touches here as well, creating a rather stunning duet. I picture dancers around burning fires and embers flying up into the dark blue night sky. Very epic track. "Mouth Mantra" meanwhile sounds like a collection of crowded thoughts; its squidgy beats and ever-shifting melodies are dizzying. Tangled up in the knot of vocals, there are some cool industrial-ish sound effects chirping like an alarm during the second half.
Lastly there's "Quicksand." This is the most overtly electronic sounding moment of Vulnicura. It's also the brightest and most upbeat. Catchy. Poppy. I'm quite fond of it, really. The message seems to be that trying times eventually bring about their opposite; the fall is necessary for salvation. Such words of wisdom are delivered on top of a techno cascade, complete with a 'buh buh' backing chorus. It's a fairly short and straightforward track---especially after the bruisers that came before---but in that sense it feels light and pleasurable. It feels like a nice cool down. 
Vulnicura is bound to draw comparisons to Homogenic and Vespertine at points. This is a good thing. Yet this album has its own distinct voice as well; it's the product of an artist who has the sort of visionary scope that comes with maturity. Additional producers add some freshness no doubt, but if Vulnicura is anything, it's a testament to Bjork's nearly inexhaustible creativity.

Mar 2, 2015 at 10:44 PM Post #3 of 6
Thanks for the excellent review. I haven't listened to the album yet, as I just got the album recently as well. I have been following Bjork since her days with the Sugarcubes, one of the great bands from the Alternative/college rock era of the later 80's.
Sugarcubes biggest hit was Birthday, which saw airplay on MTV in the US, as well as a fair amount of airplay on College and alternative radio, but my favorite song by them was Coldsweat, a tune that I remember playing in the nightclub I worked at to good reception.

Okay, got that out of my system, back to Bjork.
Mar 4, 2015 at 12:04 AM Post #4 of 6
  Thanks for the excellent review. I haven't listened to the album yet, as I just got the album recently as well. I have been following Bjork since her days with the Sugarcubes, one of the great bands from the Alternative/college rock era of the later 80's.
Sugarcubes biggest hit was Birthday, which saw airplay on MTV in the US, as well as a fair amount of airplay on College and alternative radio, but my favorite song by them was Coldsweat, a tune that I remember playing in the nightclub I worked at to good reception.

^^ this ^^ ... I will never forget the first time I heard Birthday. Not many songs have hit me like that one; I am hopeful that her latest project has something in it for me... off to download.
Jun 2, 2015 at 4:50 AM Post #6 of 6
Death Grips  -  The Powers That B
(+ Fashion Week)

More often than not, reviews for Death Grips' music spend half the time discussing the group's history and the controversy that fills it. These impressions are no exception.
While that kind of thing is usually poor form, it's practically inevitable when it comes to Death Grips, as their exploits have, for better or worse, become the frame that surrounds the pictures they paint. If we're to take anything the trio says about themselves at face value, then Death Grips is more conceptual art than a band. Yet one image has remained in the back of my mind this year whenever I've read any analysis or discussion about them: the three guys---Zach, Andy, and Stefan---riding The Tower of Terror at Disney Land, their faces lit up as they're clearly having a blast. It's an image that appeared briefly on their long assumed fake Twitter account. It's an image that some fans assumed was meant to tease them, as it was posted during a period of uncertainty over when their latest project was going to be released, if ever. In retrospect, it's an image that shows the band unwinding after months of hard work.
The members of Death Grips do things their way.
From music (abrasive) to promotion (cryptic) to distribution (free), they've always gone with their gut feelings and stuck to their guns. This, coupled with ties to Sacramento's local scenes, quickly earned the group its DIY punk name among fans. When the trio ruined an unlikely relationship with major label Epic by leaking their own album, it only cemented the idea for many that they were rebels with punk roots. Sure it garnered them a lot of publicity---the more cynical called it little more than a big publicity stunt---but in the end they delivered on their promise of putting out two records in one year, and in the end it resulted in yet more free music to satiate fans.
Thing is, punk and DIY music scenes have a strong code of ethics. When Death Grips periodically withdrew into themselves, going silent and canceling all interviews and live shows, it ticked people off. Small publications and festivals felt burned. The real kicker though was a growing sentiment that Death Grips likes to toy with their fans; the live show consisting of little more than someone's alleged suicide note on a banner, a looping iPod playlist, and instruments with no musicians behind them was the last straw for many. In the aftermath one op-ed piece proclaimed, "skipping out on your own show is not punk!" Whoops. Though whether Death Grips ever wanted to be 'punk' in the first place is anyone's guess.
That their intentions are so hard to read is part of what makes them compelling. Of course, it also makes for a turbulent relationship with their audience. Yet if over the past five years Death Grips have managed to put out five records, most of which have been available for free, it's because recording their music and getting it out there has consistently mattered to them above all else. What some may have mistaken for dedication to punk ethos is really dedication to artistic expression. Whether their antics are part of that is debatable, but at the very least it surrounds them with an air of unpredictability.
In that sense, Death Grips have really outdone themselves these past ten months. After simultaneously announcing their double album, The Powers That B, and dropping half of it out of the blue, they went on a few weeks later to deliver a Dear John letter scratched out on a napkin. It was over. Death Grips were done for good. All tour dates were canceled. As music journalists wrote eulogies, Death Grips' fanbase was plunged into even more uncertainty than usual. Was this just another stunt? Was Jenny Death, the second part of the double album, really coming out as promised? Was this going to be another Detox?
For the next ten months an obsessive waiting game unfolded and rampant speculation ensued; there were mysterious Twitter accounts, tons of fan-made fakes, ridiculous forum treatises, the works. Fans' relationship with the group began to center around predicting the unpredictable. Through most of it Death Grips themselves remained aloof, occasionally breaking their silence to release a new music video or Tweet a picture of themselves at Disney Land. However the biggest head scratcher---no doubt---was an entire collection of instrumentals entitled Fashion Week whose track list acrostically referenced a rallying cry of fan frustration.

Fashion Week
The most surprising thing about this release, to me, is how it manages to sound so inherently Death Grips-y despite lacking pivotal frontman Stefan Burnett. Of course, without that vocal intensity most fans didn't pay this stuff any attention despite it sitting on Reddit for months; you can't really blame them either, as fakes of this band are a dime a dozen. I can't say for sure whether I'd identify these as authentic without the name attached, but at the very least, I would have been impressed by someone's ability to tap into that same Government Plates spirit.
Like the aforementioned release, Fashion Week is an extremely textural and kinetic assortment of tracks that just begs for powerful visuals to go along with its soundscapes. Living up to the name, I can just imagine various models strutting down runways, donning all manner of ridiculous outfit. Whereas Government Plates mostly stuck to its psychotropic techno guns however, Fashion Week is more of an eclectic sampling; at time it revisits the android-on-a-vision-quest motif of its forebear, but at others it drifts into raucous guitar fueled skate anthems or creates some downright monstrous industrial stomps. There are serene moments like the eastern drone of "Runway T," and there's even an eerie gamelan that sounds like some kind of ghost procession on "Runway W."
There's a definite similarity here to the stuff Zach Hill released under his own name just prior to Death Grips, as it too features Andy Morin on production. Just as Little Scuzzy contain bits and pieces that would later find their way into the group's albums, it's easy to see Fashion Week as a collection of sketches or drafts. From a compositional standpoint, these tracks are more sonically compelling than structurally complex; those who aren't down with looping, repetitive music might find this all a bit lackluster. For the listener who appreciates textures, patterns, and moods for their own sake however, there's plenty of detail found on these runways.

. - ~ * ~ - .

That's Fashion Week in a nutshell. Its exact nature is still a mystery, but I suspect these tracks are b-sides or studio experiments; Death Grips call it a soundtrack, so some have tied it to Zach Hill's ongoing film project, though it seems unlikely that such a thing would be repurposed for widespread use with actual fashion shows and Adult Swim's television bumps. Perhaps it's an actual Fashion Week soundtrack. Or maybe it's the soundtrack for the months of anticipation and madness leading up to The Powers That B. As an intense period of activity in the fashion industry from February to March, the various fashion weeks around the world mirrored Death Grips' own rumblings as more and more bits and pieces of Jenny Death began to emerge from the aether.
It's weird seeing one of their fans leak a Death Grips album several weeks before the due date; used to be Death Grips leaked their own albums. Nevertheless, The Powers That B is finally out some ten months after its initial debut. And what an album. Going into it, the prospect is almost overwhelming; with its two parts taken together, it forms the longest release in the group's history. It's also the most diverse sounding and far reaching release of their discography.
The Powers That B
-Pt. 1-


Death Grips' formidable double album begins with N****s On the Moon, the name of which is likely a spoof on Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey On the Moon." By itself, this first part stands as the briefest of their projects with only eight tracks clocking in at roughly half an hour or so. Yet it's also one of their most head-spinning. Upon first listen everything sounded to me like a confused tangle, lurching and stuttering and skipping along at manic intervals. It was dizzying. Only after several listens did these  tracks sink their hooks in, and once they did, they refused to let go. Somehow Death Grips wrote a collection of 31st century pop chart toppers.
Bjork's voice is one of the defining traits here, though it serves as a found object to be diced up beyond recognition and stitched back together into new forms. The most surprising thing is how this was achieved: rather than laptop cut 'n' paste, the Icelandic singer's vocal samples were loaded onto Zach Hill's v-drums. All the glitchy Bjork-infused techno skitter then is really Zach going to town on his drum pads like the percussive monster he is. This seemingly minor detail changed my entire perspective of N****s On the Moon, transforming it from distant studio experimentation to one of the group's most paired down and focused exploits yet. It's almost like Death Grips morphed into an outsider hip hop version of Hella.
Starting things off, the perfectly titled "Up My Sleeves" samples a voice from an automated alarm system; I half jokingly wonder if this isn't some kind of response to the glass breaking and alarm ringing at the beginning of their last project. Beep beep beep. Suddenly a powerful and somewhat peculiar hook clangs into the foreground, repeating itself a few times before the track explodes into billows of electric buzzing and glitchy Bjork wails. Stefan Burnett's vocal delivery hits hard, even by his standards: 'I'll take my life like I kept it---up my sleeves---never sounds like you meant it.' His energy is commanding. The beat bounces and flutters along with hypnotic siren calls in the background, eventually shifting into a more chaotic form of warbling voices before receding bit by bit.
What's left behind is a nighttime scene of chirping crickets and spectral ambience, a passage that brings to mind the cemetery stroll in part one's cover art. Stefan speaks, subdued. It's a haunting few seconds that sets the tone for these eight tracks. Once again the instrumental erupts, this time accompanied by someone's maniacal laughter; at this point Stefan delivers some truly memorable---truly incredible---lines that offer a brief glimpse into very private space. References to such personal events as well as certain figures can be found throughout N****s On the Moon, though for the most part they're left as inside information. In this case however it's all too clear what haunts his dreams.
Next comes one of my favorite tracks from part one: "Billy Not Really," a thoroughly bizarre woe-is-me tale about psychic mediums and alien abductions. Its infectious dance beat barrels head on and with little warning right out of the starting gate, and the propulsive groove coupled with Stefan's 'oh why me oh why me oh I mean oh why me' makes for one of the catchiest moments in Death Grips' discography. Said frontman's tactile wordsmithing is in full swing on this track, ranging from his graphic descriptors ('dripping dripping splashing spreading') to the immensely satisfying refrain of 'yo oui yo,' the latter of which is usually accompanied by grunts of pleasure. Oooo aaaa. The effect is mesmerizing when put into motion.
Yet for all these displays, Stefan maintains a certain distance; instead of cultivating his usual mania and outward aggression, he seems more aloof and calculating on these tracks. "Billy Not Really" extends the previous slight of hand motif with a cool flick of the wrist, yet it also sees in palm lines the enigma of cruel fate. That dimly lit mystery of a fortune teller's parlor comes to life through the track's woozy pan pipes and accents of simulated live percussion. More than ever, Death Grips seems drawn to the synergy between instrument and voice, blurring the line as Bjork's unintelligible coos and bars from Stefan weave together songs.
By the time warped pop gem "Black Quarterback" rolls around, I think it's fairly evident that part one of The Powers That B has some of Stefan's most cryptic and downright perplexing lyrics yet. The track begins with his declaration of 'blackness,' ostensibly a response to people questioning his authenticity, the kind of thing that happens to black men who don't adhere to certain rap images. What follows is a confrontation between our narrator and a badged authority figure who approaches him like a predator licking its fur. The scene is perhaps intended as support for Stefan's thesis: he's being hassled because of his skin color. All the while minimal electro-stutters form a backdrop, that is until the instrumental kicks into high gear when he describes how agitated the officer appears.
In contrast Stefan is practically blase. He speaks as though he's the dominant one in this situation, going so far as to invoke BDSM imagery to drive the point home. His language twists and contorts as the track progresses---a guy named Crazy Eddie is mentioned a few times---and honestly much of the meaning escapes me.. By taking on the role of a quarterback however, I get the sense he's setting himself in motion. He's going on the offensive. This gets echoed in the instrumental which bobs and weaves with stabs of vox and alien bleeps; never stopping for long, its oddly timed progression ricochets forward. If ever a track on N****s On the Moon had single potential, it's this one.
"Say Hey Kid" begins with an interstellar barrage from Zach Hill, and listing to this, I can't help but wish for an entire album of v-drum techno jungle jams from the guy. Next solo album? Please make it so. Really though, this track is all about Stefan: the rousing intro soon mellows out, replaced by an understated beat that reminds me of the warning signal lights at a train crossing. It's the perfect accompaniment for his verse which touches on conformity, being part of the rank-and-file, and the comfort b[r]ought through the cycle of consumerism. All fairly standard stuff, but it's his purposeful, almost condescending delivery coupled with interesting word choice that sells it: 'tame and cashmere go together, cashmere makes perfect better.'
Stefan may or may not be referencing English literary figures when he speaks of Jon and Shelley, but the connotation is certainly there: John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, and both of the Shelleys were associated with English Romanticism which sought chaos over order in its methodology. For most of this track, Stefan is speaking in a slower, more methodical way that's reminiscent of Death Grips' single "Birds," though things gradually accelerate as he chants a title callback during the outro: say hey kid come play dead. Thus the first quarter of their double album---the first half of part one---comes to an end, and the image it conjures is one of Sacramento's backlots and cemeteries rendered in stark black and white.
It's at this point that N****s On the Moon enters a weird psychosexual phase with "Have a Sad C** BB" and "screw Me Out." The former is a glitched out---mostly instrumental---jam with distorted vocal samples bidding the listener sad orgasmic tidings. Stefan has a few vocal contributions here, namely vocoder segments about wasting time that are impossible to decipher without the lyrics sheet as well as a simple yet excellent hook: 'I'm busy --ooo!' Given the context clues, I'd wager a guess this track is about masturbation which tends to be associated with loneliness and time wasting on the Internet. That kind of distance and alienation is at the heart of N****s On the Moon, so it's fitting that Death Grips would put the title's anthem in the comment section of the original download's ID3 tags.
"screw Me Out" takes that concept even further: it's a sexual encounter where Stefan encourages the deed but ironically warns 'just don't touch me.' In other words, the act is stripped of all intimacy and meaning, becoming pure mechanical action. It's the fulfillment of pure drive in a meaningless world. Little wonder this track comes across as the album's most frigid: pointillist electronics and percussion sound like audio buckshot, and even spoken lines get broken down into globular particulates with all the space between Stefan's words. The aural equivalent of splatter patterns, by Death Grips. At a verbal climax---in more than one sense---Stefan begins speaking in gibberish, and these ridiculous 'flim flam' exclamations seem like a malfunction of language. It's like Stefan is trying to express the inexpressible, but the attempt necessarily ends in failure as it crashes violently against the language barrier.
My second favorite track from part one is "Viola." To my mind, it's far and away the most esoteric of the bunch; in fact I'm hard pressed to identify much about its subject matter beyond Stefan's focus on his own 'shadow.' Perhaps this is the image he projects, a representation of himself that others see in limited dimensions? Perhaps this shadow is 'MC Ride?' Maybe, maybe not. What's clear though is the word voila which is an expression of accomplishment. Continuing with the theme of magic acts, this exclamation most likely accompanies a trick being performed; I get the distinct impression that Stefan is describing the relationship between artists, performances, and audiences with an almost deceptive cast. He says he'll make you love that deception.
Musically, this track is just as mysterious as its subject matter. It shuffles and jerks with rhythmic hysteria, screaming in cathartic, reverb-soaked fits. Even more intriguing still are the slow segments: the brilliant little one-two-three ditty early on gets me every time, as does Stefan's refrain of 'I don't talk to the heeeelp.' Hearing this and the mention of hotels reminds me of the infamous Chateau Marmont which haunts the depths of Death Grips' lore. For the trio, it was the location where they burned through the last of their advance money, alone and snubbed by Epic Records. It was a forceful attempt at personal paradigm change.
The tracks of N****s On the Moon---while distinct---effortless flow from one to the next, becoming a unified whole. "Big Dipper" is its final push. It's the ending to what is surely Death Grips' shortest but deepest project, and it comes at just the right time to prevent these sounds from losing their impact. Bjork's voice is at its most percussive here, clicking and clacking and sounding off like an alarm. It should all be familiar, culled from bits and pieces of everything that came before, a perfect encapsulation of everything part one is about. Stefan in turn lists off the various things he attributes to himself: he's a silhouette lifter, a struck stuck off kilter, a bent bewildered. Singing along with him is all too tempting. Also I'll bet dollars to doughnuts the 'big dip-er' hook gets stuck in your head; like most of Death Grips' best, it's deceptively simple yet impossibly catchy.
Stefan's last words here anthropomorphize a burning pyre, saying that it licks you if you get too close to it. You might think that it likes you, but really it's because it loathes you. With his typical charm Stefan adds: 'even more than I do.'
His voice fades into the ether.
Zach Hill suddenly takes over with an incredible solo slash core meltdown. It all sounds like some kind of computer virus infecting a spaceship and causing its systems to go haywire; bit by bit, greyscale pieces are blown off and flung into the vacuum of space like confetti. Life support fails, and everything goes quiet.

The Powers That B
-Pt. 2-


The silence that once lasted months is now a brief gap.
Jenny Death makes its presence known with a loud cymbal crash followed by amp-rattling pulsations and synth horn fanfare. Up come Stefan's shouts from the depths of some room, 'I break mirrors with my face in the United States!' He sounds more urgent than ever. Revitalized. This track---named for Stefan's aforementioned mantra---is Death Grips at their most punk infused; more than ever, they sound like a live band playing together in the same space, and this directional change carries on throughout Jenny Death. There's a definite juxtaposition at work between parts one and two: the latter is more outwardly aggressive, more direct, louder, longer, and its musical influences look more to the past than the far-flung future. If part one is a sleek evolutionary endpoint, then part two comes full circle. It returns to the chaotic rock guitar-laden bluster of Death Grips' first mixtape, Ex-Military, while making use of everything they've learned along the way.
'I don't care about real life!' Stefan yells, ever the introverted thinker. His words are constantly in motion on this track, rising and falling along a synth roller coaster or echoing like ping pong balls bouncing off walls. It's this emphasis on the human voice that, for me, provides a line of continuity between both sides of The Powers: it becomes part of the instrumental through sampling, processing, vocoders, onamonapia, guttural noises. There's also an overarching theme of exteriority versus interiority, of the physical world and the forces that rule over it. When Stefan dismisses 'real life,' he likely means the everyday banality that orders us; the life of the mind is no less real, and in a way our interior thoughts and fantasies are more so.
As an aside, my friend Myke C-Town raises a good point about 'breaking mirrors' with one's face: it's a classic insult aimed at one's looks. It's all too easy to think Stefan is being wild here---literally smashing panes of glass with his face---but perhaps he's being critical of his own appearance (and general physicality) instead. Either way, this is an explosive start to Jenny Death. It sounds like escape pods from the USS Bjork crash landing back on Earth.
If the next track is anything to go by, they've crashed into a basketball stadium in the middle of March Madness.
"Inanimate Sensation" is a monster. It starts off immediately upping the group's 'What factor' thanks to its accelerating cacophony, a loud and delightfully obnoxious screech that is equal parts Beastie Boys, chalkboard nails, and Stefan's impersonation of an air raid siren. EEEeeehhhhh. Zach's drumming sounds straightforward by his standards, but also forceful and extremely satisfying. There's a brief pause with breathing and truly massive low end thuds, and it all builds up to a perfect asswalloping via Stefan's verbal clothesline: 'In-animate sen-suh-ah-shun, vantage perspective from objective it. Came. From.'
His flow on this track is so hard and tactile, accompanied all the while by Zach's furious drum pounding and Andy's rubbery, stretchy synth splats. It gives the song a heavy bounce that really fits the basketball motif of its accompanying music video. Said video puts Stefan up on a fallen jumbotron in the midst of a 3D rendered stadium; he's accompanied by cryptic graphics of vans in space and melting ziggurats that serve as Money Store callbacks, but things only get especially bizarre when he dons a set of comedically large googly eyes. Lyrically, Stefan is focused on how people derive pleasure through media: listening to music out of iPods, collecting records, or watching performers on screens. He seems to touch on fan obsession at one point by adopting a creepy, mewling cadence to play the role of someone getting in his way and pestering him with questions. The large prop eyes are worn by 'the fan,' indicative of someone who spends all his time staring; they're like a mock evolutionary adaptation for a species that mostly exists behind static screens.
The second half of this already dizzying track is, for me, its highpoint. In contrast to his earlier voice, Stefan gets pitch shifted down a few notches into DJ Screw territory; he then proceeds to list off a bunch of everyday objects that are part of his life or perceived by others to be. I get the distinct impression that he's parodying himself here, becoming that scary meme monster to which he's reduced on a regular basis by much of his audience. He's a series of traits as outlined by the stuff in his life, nothing more. Reviewers often single this part out as unnecessary, but to me it suits the track perfectly; Stefan's one-syllable-at-a-time flow is sludge coated, becoming even heavier and gaining the impact of a series of gunshots. Things build to a fever pitch as his banshee wails propel the barking Stefan higher and higher. 'Blown out. Base.' The chair gets kicked over, and Andy's synths swing from the rafters---side to side---like a hanged man.
"Inanimate Sensation" has climaxed, and a whole slew of musical references follow in this wake: The Beatles, Slash, Rick James, Jimi Hendrix. Stefan just goes nuts here, dragging everything into his vortex. He also mentions a certain 'live show on a banner,' revisiting Death Grips' now infamous no-show and their propensity toward dashing fan expectations. Just what his feelings are toward all this is anyone's guess. The end result of "Inanimate Sensation" is clear enough, though: one of the best things this band has ever done.
Speaking of confounded expectations, next track "Turned Off" begins with some live guitar courtesy of Nick Reinhart. It's a portent of things to come. Like the KoolAid-Man busting through a brick wall, Zach's drums come flying in amidst an acid bath of amp fried fizz. The high priest's words aren't far behind: 'I'm smoking cigarettes in the shower, when they get wet I just light another.' Quite the character portrait. Franticness quickly rises in his voice, and the track rockets off with an all-too-familiar sound for anyone obsessed with these guys: IT'S DEATH death death death. Ah yes, that sample. BOOM.
Death Grips go into full-on band mode once again, rocking out like they've been doing this together since the beginning of time. Which is pretty baffling in a strict musical sense; 'rap-rock' hasn't exactly enjoyed an illustrious reputation, usually found shambling like an undead corpse amidst the unhallowed halls of nu-metal, the likes of which were build to imprison Eldritch horrors of radio friendly singsong. Instead, Death Grips make it their own with lurching abandon, sounding altogether different yet still, somehow, the same as ever. This is evolutionary regression, and it shouldn't work at all, but it does. It does because Stefan sells it, acting as the driving catalyst with his well worn death metal shirts and lean, tattooed body underneath. His ridiculous screech of 'my man!'  is like the ecstasy of a shaman who can't help but draw people inward with uncanny magnetism.
These manic outbursts spill over into "Why a B**** Gotta Lie" where producer Andy Morin shows off his penchant for found sound, pairing them up with a tabla loop straight out of Garage Band. Filtered screams in turn are used to create a stuttering, ectoplasmic vapor trail that sounds like something Cotton Casino might record. The track builds up to a distorted jam, and the group's newfound rock leanings are transmuted into a dance floor blaster that finds Stefan behind a vocoder. This might seem out of place, but it's not without precedence: both "Birds" (from Government Plates) and this album's own "Have a Sad C** BB" make use of robotic vocals. Neither of these examples have the dance-lock groove of the current track however, and so opinions among fans are bound to be split. Personally I love it. Vacillating back and forth between electrogroove and grunge fury, it glitches out and builds to a crescendo that sounds like someone opening the ark.
"Pss Pss" dials things down a bit, but in the best possible way: it's a total creepshow. Its instrumental slithers and writhes like some kind of perverse alien insect. Stefan once again dons the sex-crazed party animal cap he wore on "I Want It I Need It (Death Heated)," only now that persona seems even more devious and paranoid, reintroducing itself with a barking mad accusation: 'I saw you doin' peace signs with the FBI.' It's all downhill from there. He proceeds to narrate various encounters involving everything from public exposure to watersports, dehumanizing his partner with a certain gleefulness in counterpoint to part one's icy distance ('You're one of those things I never rewind'). This kind of thing might wear itself thin if it weren't for the fact that Death Grips pull off unsettling vibes so well; the undulating synths and their sickly, addictive groove is just perfection, and the delivery of Stefan's lines matched with his sampled 'bae bae bae' hook really gets under my skin. It's the little details however---the goofy onomatopoeia of the title, the perfect placement of a bull horn---that really make this track for me.
'Life is really dangerous, and it wants to rearrange us. Like your friends. Like the end.'
Far and away, the heaviest moment on this double album is the title track, "The Powers That B." It starts by building up a creepy trailing vibe, the exasperated narrator explaining that he can't control the hell he's about to unleash. His desperation grows, and things inevitably blow up with a massive sounding, gnarled and slow-strobing synth. With this auditory sucker-punch, Stefan delivers some of his most memorable bars in some time: "I've got the powers that be running through me!" In this case, these powers aren't our social institutions but rather the forces in control of one desperate man's mind. Maybe even the forces of the universe. There are lines as well about non sequitur favorite colors and walking through malls while wearing black gloves, and the whole thing is a surreal meltdown that brutalizes with indiscriminate hostility. At one point Stefan's voice gets processed in a way that reminds me of Richard D. James's "Milkman" hijinks; there's also a beat change that hits at just the right moment. For me though it's the track's ending that pushes it over the edge of amazing straight into mind-blowing. Death Grips revisit their bleakness circa No Love Deep Web, conjuring up all the atmosphere of a condemned building. Stefan just fumes. 'You're a shiny clown to me and the powers that be.'
The last side of Jenny Death is perhaps the most surprising of all with its three slow burning, psychedelia infused guitar anthems. In stark contrast to the previous track's crushing intensity, "Beyond Alive" is quite buoyant sounding; its rallying west coast through-the-decades rock harkens back to the more carefree moments of skate parks  and house shows in Death Grips' discography. Lyrically however, the track deals with rather heady subjects like existential fear and willful ignorance. The narrator chooses to confront the realities of life and mortality, feeling a sense of exhilaration as a result. At the same time, he calls out those who shy away from these hard truths, the cowardly livestock with a herd mentality who are oblivious to their own expiration. The song's best part in my opinion arrives a little past the halfway point, when the instrumental morphs into a full-on kosmische slipstream. Death Grips haven't sounded this spaced-out in some time.
"Centuries of Damn" is an opiated head-nodder with drawn out guitar leads, rolling snares, and sun-dazed sheen. I can't help but visualize Stefan's narrative in washed out, bloom soaked camera shots, little bits of grit stuck onto the lens. 'I pull my face out the dirt, slow.' When the track kicks into gear, it sounds like a barn burner that's been put through the ringer, now too world weary to rock out like it once did. The real centerpiece here is lyrical flow; Stefan belts out his lines at a perfect clip, providing the necessary momentum to hold everything together. His voice has shed any processed FX from earlier tracks, the snakeskin husk lying behind in the form of glitched out vocal modulation that writhes, disembodied, before evaporating. Stefan seems to bare himself here, surrounded by the howls of lonesome guitars. This is blues by Death Grips.
With wisps of organ fuzz trailing from hissing amp stacks, "On GP" arrives suddenly and unceremoniously, as if it's always existed in one form or another. Some eternal sounding chords later, Stefan is spilling his guts while Zach urgently drumrolls like he's trying to save his friend's life. The instrumental spirals straight up into the clouds, into lighters-out-at-a-conecrt territory. These guys have never sounded so straight-up majestic before. They've also never sounded so far removed from their industrial rap origins, not just sampling bands of yore but playing in that mode themselves. In fact the nearest point of comparison I can think of for "On GP" is Jim Morrison and The Doors. Stefan is very much a romantic era poet here, a lonely artist with suicidal ideation who would rather die young than grow old. He recounts an episode in which a nosy neighbor pries into his affairs. His raspy voiced response is to be brutally honest: he's getting some rope and hanging a noose in his apartment. 'Come try it out whenever you wanna.'
When people analyze Stefan's lyrics, they often assume he's playing a character. That's reasonable enough (and I myself subscribe to the view). In this case however, he's clearly speaking autobiographically. There's a particularly soul stirring moment when he---for the first time in the groups' history---uses his own name, for instance. It's part of an exchange in which Death personified shows up on his doorstep; he asks the specter to take his life, but in response it shifts the responsibility back onto him by passing along a gun and bidding him so long. 'It's been a pleasure, Stefan.' It's clear the two have flirted in the past. It's also clear that someone or something has kept Stefan alive thus far. The man reveals this to be family and friends, but he hastens to add that if it weren't for them and his sense of obligation, he'd most certainly kill himself on general principle (thus, the title). For Stefan, this is the only rational response to the broken world in which we live.
"On GP" would have been a perfect end to The Powers That B and a fitting swan song for Death Grips' in general, but these guys can't resist delivering one last mystery in the form of "Death Grips 2.0." The name itself seems perfectly engineered to screw with fans, a sort of wink or question mark at the end of the credits. Sonically, the track is awash with static and knife-edge arpeggiated beats, sounding completely synthetic and alien to the world of Grips. The frenzied humanism of Stefan is nowhere to be found. Zach's playful touch is missing. If anything, I'd believe this was one of Andy Morin's electro culture-shocked  arrangements, something which came from the hatchery that spawned "Codename Dancer" but evolved far beyond it. Given its name however, I can't help but think of all this as being a bit tongue-in-cheek.
Whether this really is Death Grips' final hurrah or whether they plan to return in some fashion remains to be seen, but there's no doubt in my mind that The Powers That B is an exceptional way to go. The debate over whether or not these guys make real hip hop seems like a moot point now: their psychotropic-fueled frenzy has blurred the lines between genres beyond recognition. Like their monument to equal parts ego death and blase grandstanding---the napkin---suggests, they always were and always will be more than a band. They're Death Grips.

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