Monday, February 2, 2015

album review: 'all hands' by doomtree

So let me pose to you all a question: how easy should art be to consume?

Because as a critic who covers so many genres of music - especially pop music - it gets to be an interesting conversation when you ask this question. On the one hand, you'll find plenty of critics, scholars, or people looking to challenge themselves who seek out all sorts of challenging or draining art that can push the mind or body. On the other hand, you'll find all sorts of art that's not designed to challenge at all - whether by catering or pandering to its audience or by tapping into specific pleasure centers, it goes down easy. 

Now let's pose the hard question: what is better? Well, it's a loaded question, especially when you bring artistic intent into the mix. On the one hand, art that is experimental or thought-provoking is often hailed for pushing those boundaries, disparaging more commercial products. And yet as I've said in the past, there's craftsmanship in populism - sure, there might be a formula to commercially accessible art, but creating something truly special in that vein, or wrapping challenging subject matter in an easy-to-swallow package, that's much more difficult. 

But let's ask a different question: what makes art - in this case music - difficult to consume? Well, you get your power electronics or certain subgenres of metal that are actively abrasive, but then you get bands like Swans, who put together two-and-a-half hour albums with thirty four minute songs - sure, it's a tough sound to get used to, but what's really daunting about such an album is the length.

And then you get an act like the Minnesota hip-hop collective Doomtree, a group that's not daunting because of length, but because of sheer density. Five rappers known for aggressively cerebral lyrics that recall beat poetry interwoven with hard-edged social commentary, set against production that's explosive and rough, Doomtree records can be exhausting to take in and fully comprehend - and unsurprisingly, this album has been one of my most anticipated of 2015. I originally got into Doomtree through one of their members - Dessa, who I'd easily put down as one of my favourite female MCs ever - and the group won me over fast. I wouldn't say they've made a perfect record yet - some of the more experimental production choices haven't always worked and the politically-minded lyrics can occasionally venture into conspiracy theory nonsense - but both their self-titled debut and No Kings had some fantastic cuts on them that are rewarding both on an intellectual and visceral level. So you can bet I was absolutely psyched for their newest album All Hands - did we finally get that classic?

Well, it was definitely a change in pace, that's for damn sure. As expected, Doomtree made a difficult album with this release, and while some of the reasons remain the same - production that pushes aggressively against conventional, MCs with layered and complicated bars that assume the listener can keep up - but where this album changes is in its focus and overall atmosphere. It's a much colder and bleaker album, even more impenetrable than their last, and while I don't think it's the classic I'm still convinced Doomtree could make, it's definitely the sort of record that'll sound like nothing else you'll probably hear this year - and yeah, I absolutely think it's amazing, one of the best records that'll be released this year, bar none.

Now let's start with the most palpable changes, and those would be in the instrumentation and production. Doomtree have always been forward-thinking and challenging when it comes to production, and the sound Lazerbeak, Cecil Otter, P.O.S., and Paper Tiger chose for this album is definitely a change in focus. The synths are blocky, glitchy and blaring, the massive effects wobble and grind together, the percussion crashes and the beats feel even more fragmented. And all of it is stuffed into a mix that balances moments of emptiness with textures that feel stripped of some of the warmth that used to characterize some of Doomtree's sound. Even the guitar flutters on 'Heavy Rescue' feel distant and removed. While El-P's production on Run The Jewels could have chilly moments, this is the sort of cold that calls to mind the frigid howling wastes of the Midwest in the dead of winter, and it was only when I was trudging through the blizzard that's currently tearing through Toronto that my memories of growing up out west came back and the production really clicked for me. Now I'm not saying the production always clicks - the choice to go for such frigid synths and abrasive sounds is consistent across the record, but it means sometimes some of the instrumentation can run together, and that keeps you hunting for the details to distinguish certain songs. And while the details are often there - I loved how the production seemed to evolve and change with different rappers within the same song, I loved that how despite the density of the bars, Doomtree still know how to write a killer chorus like on 'Final Boss', 'Grey Duck', 'Heavy Rescue', and especially 'Beastface', and the subtle flourishes like the thick plucks on 'The Bends' that almost remind me of a yakuza movie - there are moments where the production could have benefited from a bit more restraint and control. Eventually, production this monolithic becomes monochrome, especially considering the almost single-mindedness of the tone.

Granted, this density is characteristic across Doomtree records, and of course you get it in the lyrics. And like the best of rap posses, every rapper has a unique writing style and the ability to impressively switch up their flows. For me, Dessa is always the highlight - her bars have a sort of ruthless, authoritative tightness to their construction that I've always respected, and while she doesn't show off as much emotional range as she can on her solo projects, her delivery can easily match the frigidity of the sound. From there, Cecil Otter's carefully restrained tension, Mike Mictian's more expressive and direct wordplay with surprising moments of brilliance, and Sims' offbeat and frequently funny lyricism add a lot of variety, and they all get winning bars including the first Crystal Pepsi reference in music I think I've ever heard - thank you, Sims, for that, that was a nice touch. If there were an MC that I struggle with, it's P.O.S. - his flow and wordplay is arguably the most stripped down on this album, going for raw punk aggression, and while his multisyllabic definitely works and his bars on 'Marathon' and especially 'Mini Brute' I'd argue are highlights of their respective songs, and yet his punchlines strangely don't always connect with the same force, especially for an album that feels as careening out of control and wild as this one does.

This is where we actually need to talk about lyrical content - and the first thing that needs to be noted is that the majority of this album was written in a cabin, cut off from most of the rest of the world. And you can tell - Doomtree has always been a cult band, but this is the first record where their focus has turned more internal to actually talk about what it means. Now like most art written about being artists, there is a certain ouroboros element to it, but to their credit there's more than just smug glorification of that cult status, instead pulling their listeners deeper into the rabbit hole of what that life is like. And if anything, it's an endurance trial - and I mean that as a compliment, a record that shows Doomtree dragging their listeners into the frozen backwoods down darkened roads with an unsteady recklessness that almost feels primal. And while you get the bars that show acrid contempt for mainstream artists and culture that won't respect their brand of hip-hop, they also know this sort of material will resonate with a small audience, and thus this album seems more like a trial for those fans to both keep up and see who Doomtree really are.

And here's where we get to the point about this album that's... well, complicated, because for as many great lines as Doomtree drop to fill up this album, you could make the argument that the songs are more abstractly sketched and fragmented than ever. And of course it's intentional, Doomtree state multiple times on this record that they expect the audience to keep up and they aren't going to be explaining it, but it also leaves you searching for the overarching theme and punchline and the growing suspicion they don't have one. Sure, you get the political moments - '.38 Airweight' is loaded with references to Bernie Goetz, a man who infamously shot four black men on the subway in the 80s and anyone can see the significance of those references coming out of 2014, but for as violent as that song is, it reveals moments of self-doubt, and futile attempts to kill one's gods and determine one's own destiny - hell, Mike Mictian's final bar, 'I made a stick into a gun and stared right at the sun / bang'. And it's really all over this record, that feeling of futility against larger forces, and the desperation to find something that really matters. And it's really 'Marathon' that drives that bleakness home - the chorus is 'When it all boils down, there's nothing but bones left' - reducing it down to the most primal, the most universal humanity to which only the barest of details can be reconstructed and something we all share - and when you have nothing left to lose, the larger world can't stop you.

So in other words... look, Doomtree's definitely not for everyone, and this record more than most is probably one of their most difficult to unpack - even after a good dozen listens, I'm still pulling out new scraps of wordplay that interweave with each other, more running motifs and themes and lines that might seem like filler until you dig deeper. And even with that, this album is not an easy listen - bleak, ragged, not so much an ouroboros but the group finding their core by flaying away anything that is unnecessary. It's a harrowing listen, to be sure, and yet the more I delve deeper, the more this album just clicks on a primal level for me their other records only managed in pieces. For me, this record manages to snag a 9/10 and the highest of recommendations. I had high hopes for this album, and while I definitely was not expecting this, it managed to surprise and connect with me in a way that only Doomtree could. And if you need any help this really sinking in... go take a long walk in the snow or in the wilds. You'll get it then.

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