Tuesday, March 10, 2015

album review: 'blade of the ronin' by cannibal ox

So here's one of the joys of discovering a great artist, at least for me: I now have an easy excuse to go through their entire back catalog and listen to anything they might have done in the past. Which, sure, it adds to my backlog but often times it's more than worth it as I often get the chance to pick up albums that I would never have otherwise heard if I had just stuck to the mainstream.

So when I heard the collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P with Run The Jewels back in 2013, not being as familiar with either artist as I wanted to be, I tore through their back catalogs with gusto. With Killer Mike it was easier - I already knew a bunch of his stuff through familiarity with Dungeon Family so finally listening to those solo albums was a welcome treat, especially PL3DGE and R.A.P. Music. But El-P was different - he might have had a slightly smaller back catalog of albums, but a record like Cancer 4 Cure demanded multiple in-depth listens to decode and fully take in. El-P was not a rapper who made simple music, in his bars or his productions, and that meant to really appreciate it, it simply took more time.

And as such, it took me a while to finally branch out and start digging into the artists for whom El-P had producer credits, and while I was already familiar with Cage and The Weathermen and really enjoyed what I heard from Company Flow, one release that really caught my ear was The Cold Vein by New York hip-hop duo Cannibal Ox, entirely produced by El-P. And for good reason, it's a killer underground hip-hop record that's damn close to a classic featuring some stellar production and both MCs Vordul and Vast Aire dropping bar after bar of hard-edged and insightful wordplay. It's not precisely an easy album to take in - it's pretty icy and bleak, especially when you dig into the subject matter - but it's definitely worth it.

And thus it's always been a little surprising that Cannibal Ox didn't follow up The Cold Vein immediately. Instead the duo split and dropped a few solo albums apiece and parted ways with El-P, but it wouldn't be until 2013 where they would drop a new EP with new material, songs that would eventually end up on their newest album, Blade Of The Ronin. And look, I had mixed expectations going into this - sure, they might not have El-P's beats, but it's not like they would have become worse wordsmiths, so the album was probably pretty damn good, right?

Well, here's the thing: I don't think Blade Of The Ronin is a bad album - in fact, there are some elements I do like. But the more I listened through this record and pored through the lyrics, the more I found myself underwhelmed with this release, especially when placed in comparison with The Cold Vein - which is harsh, but the only reason people would pick up this album is because of The Cold Vein, so to some extent its inevitable. As such, while Blade of the Ronin is decent, I can't help but wish it was stronger.

So why is that the case? Well, believe it or not, it's not because of instrumentation and production. There was a lot of discussion going in whether the loss of El-P would hurt this record, and while it's hard not to argue El-P brought a uniquely frigid, alien, and experimental sound to that album, I'd argue new producer Bill Cosmiq doesn't do a bad job here. Hell, the intro 'Cipher Unknown' almost reminded me of an early Ayreon track in its choice of synthesizers, and that's a pretty damn good influence for this sort of record. Cosmiq does have a unique sound: a dense mix full of mid-range synths and choppy vocals with pretty standard boom-bap percussion, not so much grimy as it is filtered through a tight lo-fi filter. And there are some great moments: the rattling creaking howl of 'Opposite of Desolate', the warped guitar scream against the tinkling keys on 'Carnivorous', the brittle hollowness of 'Water', the twisted melodic interplay of 'Harlem Knights', and the triumphant swell of 'Salvation'. If I do have issues with the production - and I do - it'd be in three places. The first would be the inclusion of some of the vocal samples like on 'The Power Cosmiq' - with an already saturated-mid-range and the dirtier vibe of this album, they don't belong here at all. The second is in the percussion - I don't mind boom-bap beats, and even though we're not getting El-P's experimentation, I was okay with it... until we got to the interlude 'Horizon', which picked a much richer bass drum texture that shows Cosmiq could have switched things up more and he didn't. The final thing is that considering this album runs for nineteen tracks and does feel long even despite interludes and skits, I would have liked to see a little more variance in the production style.

So what about our MCs? Well, like most rap duos, we have our more outwardly aggressive rapper - Vast Aire in this case, who has developed a pretty potent rasp and a lot of intensity that draws attention - and the one who is more laid back and whose bars are more intricate and cryptic - Vordul Mega here. And you'd think that since this is a comeback album that's primarily focused thematically on survival, they'd bring a little more intensity. Now keep in mind these guys are both solid MCs in terms of structuring rhymes, which means on a technical structure basis I've got little complaints, but would it have killed Vordul to have more energy? An easy comparison for me is Evidence, another rapper with a slower, more methodical flow, but there's a difference between slow due to being meticulous and precise and slow that it sounds like you're half asleep. Hell, on 'Blade: The Art Of Ox' he's actively slurring his bars - which is a shame, because more of the enigmatic and thoughtful wordplay comes from Vordul on this album. 

This takes us to lyrics and themes, and as I said, one of the biggest underlying themes that seems to underscore this record is survival, the sort driven from living on the edge of polite society - and if you know anything about ronin from the era of samurai, it makes sense, as drifters and wanderers constantly on the move. Bizarrely, there aren't nearly as many references to samurai or Rashamon or Japanese culture as there are off-beat comics and sci-fi references, including a direct sample of Yoda... which I wouldn't mind if they connected better and didn't just feel like off-kilter rambling or brags that aren't nearly as impressive. If we're looking for the greatest departure from The Cold Vein, I'd argue it's here, in that a lot of the storytelling and structure to these songs has fallen away, which leads to verses that feel increasingly disconnected with each other, let alone have any real social commentary. 'Harlem Knights' is probably the closest example that has significant detail, but beyond that, 'Water' feels like something Mick Jenkins did far better last year, and much more of this album is just focused on bragging. Which would be fine enough if there weren't so many completely ridiculous bars from Vast Aire. I don't know if he just needed another draft to get things focused or whether he needed to work more closely with Vordul to build more cohesion between their verses, but even on an album overloaded with comic book references there's no excuse for that godawful Pikachu line from 'The Power Cosmiq' or the painfully stretched iron references on 'Iron Rose' or that comparison of girls to Frankenstein!

And you know it's not exactly a good sign when both main performers are outshone by their guest stars on multiple tracks - Irealz on 'Sabertooth', MF DOOM on 'Iron Rose', The Quantum on 'Vision', for example - but the larger issue with piling on as many guest stars as they do is that lack of cohesion is even more prominent, with probably Elzhi faring the best on 'Carnivorous', which ends up being one of the strongest tracks on the album. And it's not just cohesion within the songs, but the album as a whole. The more I dug into these lyrics, the less actual insight I gleaned from Vast Aire's bars, and while Vordul's lyricism was intricate, it started to feel a bit like he was spinning his wheels instead of landing a punchline or making a point that really cut deep - I feel most of this record sits on the cusp of a potent revelation and yet it never really comes. And really, when you strip away all of the layered, gritty storytelling and description, I'm left with an album that's as meandering and aimless as the ronin of its title.

So in the end... look, if you ignore The Cold Vein entirely when examining this album, it's passable, at least for me. I like a lot of the production, these guys are talented MCs, and there are some solid guest verses. But in terms of content or depth, I'm underwhelmed by this - it feels unfocused, lyrically underweight, and having more awkward or ridiculous bars than outright slam dunks - in other words, I shouldn't feel like I enjoy the instrumental interludes more than the regular tracks on a hip-hop album. Granted, I did enjoy them, which is enough to knock this record up to a 6/10 and a recommendation, but if you're going in expecting another album like The Cold Vein, you need to lower your expectations. Otherwise, it's worth a listen or two, but man, I wish it made more impact.

No comments:

Post a Comment