Monday, May 9, 2016

album review: 'bottomless pit' by death grips

Okay, I can't be the only one who is a little surprised Death Grips is still releasing music at this point, am I?

Because let's be completely honest here: after the 'break-up/reunion' that played into the whole lead-up of their last album The Powers That B which I covered last year, I got the impression that Death Grips were at the very least stretching the patience of their fanbase, only able to keep them on board because they were consistently delivering quality, albeit with records like Government Plates that might be a step away from their best. Sure, I wasn't wild about the first half of that double album, but Jenny Death did prove to be the explosive, noise-rock-inspired climax that could serve as a logical, emotionally satisfying endpoint to their wild saga...

And then they kept going. And sure, you could have predicted some of it - you could definitely argue the end of Jenny Death was a rebirth of sorts for Death Grips, a regeneration into new flights of experimentation, but I can't be the only one who feels the novelty isn't quite there anymore. Noisier production is a lot more common in alternative hip-hop these days than back in 2012, and while MC Ride is still a presence unto himself, the graphic nihilism doesn't shock me in the same way anymore. And let's get real, you can only really take the arc that Jenny Death took once, but on the flip side, this also meant that with Bottomless Pit anything could happen. So I jumped into Bottomless Pit - where did I wind up?

Well, I sure as hell didn't expect this - and yet in a certain way, I think I should have. I mentioned that I thought Death Grips were stretching the patience of their rabid fanbase to the limit - well, it seems like Death Grips ran out of patience faster. And in the grand tradition of swallowing one's own tail, Death Grips have joined the short list of acts who have blasted their own fanbases on Bottomless Pit, which in its own warped way might be the group's most deliberate and accessible record to date. And speaking as someone who has never entirely gotten noided or onboard with the Death Grips runaway train, I actually found myself enjoying this record a fair bit - go figure.

So how in the Nine Hells did that happen? Well, I think part of it is MC Ride himself - Zach Hill still does have his bestial yell, but this is probably one of his more reserved projects to date. He's still a fearsome performer - in terms of raw intensity and the sheer amount of contempt towards his targets, either through straightforward rage or subtler disgust or indifference, he commands a lot of presence - but the rage here is more restrained, more targeted than the all-consuming flames of Jenny Death. On the one hand, that's a major plus, as I can definitely understand more of what he's saying without having to scan through the lyrics with every line, and while he's still insulated within the production, he's not incomprehensible. But it also serves to highlight how many places where Hill's bars just slip off the groove or beat entirely, and that's not as excusable if you're going to downplay.

Granted, when I say 'downplay', I'm sure as hell not referring to the lyrical subject matter, where Death Grips take their usual lurid, gory lyrics and position them directly at their audience. Now there's a tricky line to doing this well - when Fall Out Boy made Save Rock and Roll, they stumbled frequently because arrogant but self-deprecating swagger can get more than a little insufferable, even if they did have a point. Death Grips, to their benefit, are far less concerned with preserving their own image, and the visceral nihilism that bleeds through their words doesn't discriminate on their targets. It hits the drooling neanderthals who hop on the hooks but don't get the messages they scream, the fans who can't handle the wild shifts in sound, the obsessive fans who think they know the trio better than themselves, and more than ever a pretty considerable dumping on critics or 'casual fans' who use Death Grips as an excuse to indulge in something wild they'd never otherwise embrace. Combine all of this with the usual shots at mainstream hip-hop or those who would bite their style badly - not to mention his own self-flagellating side that peels away the elements that would hold him back - and you get an avalanche of bile poured over the impressionistic lyrics that develop more meaning through mood than narrative. And yeah, it's misanthropic and ugly as hell - and probably not the best idea to target the majority of it on your fanbase - but Death Grips understands that the majority of them won't understand or even care, which only feeds into the contempt all the stronger, the sort of escalating BDSM relationship that they directly reference on the highly sexualized themes that run more through the back half of the album. It's a feedback relationship that on some level Death Grips thinks is contemptible - especially when outsiders try to tap in without understanding, or hold themselves above it - but by the time we get to the title track and past the indifference of 'Eh' and the contempt of 'Trash' and the targeted humiliation of 'BB Poison' and the filthy sex of 'Three Bedrooms And A Good Neighborhood' or 'Ring A Bell' or the mutations of 'Spikes' and 'Hot Head', Death Grips is more a force of nature pulling from ineffable depths than anything else.

So what does this mean for the music? Honestly, it's tough to say, because Death Grips are synthesizing a distinctive brew for this record that falls somewhere between the roaring noisy guitars of Jenny Death and the walls of textured synth that would come through on The Money Store, except much more tightly fused. And one thing I want to focus on that Death Grips understands more than most pop artists these days is melody, namely that a significant chunk of this record has pretty solid if not great melodic hooks anchored in the synths or guitars. The opening track 'Giving Bad People Good Ideas' is a prime example - in one of the rare cases of Death Grips using a guest star for a hook, they get punk singer Clementine Creery to anchor a melody before piling in live blast beat drumming and borderline hardcore punk guitars. And it's not just here: the compressed guitar line that feeds into the glitchy synths on 'Spikes', what sounds like a distorted horn against the quicker groove and gleaming fragments on 'Trash', the bassy disintegrating synth and noisier drums on 'Houdini', the sizzle of the synth on 'BB Poison' that plays against the guitar for the hook, the chopped up guitar line on 'Three Bedrooms In A Good Neighborhood', the disturbingly catchy compressed melody on 'Ring A Bell' plays off some great eerie sampling and fuzzy riffs, and then there's the title track with the stuttering guitar line that eventually builds into a killer groove. And yet it's one of the few places where that actually happens, because this record is screaming for a thicker, hard-hitting bass progression. Oh, it's here in some of the deeper percussion and low synths, but I found myself wishing that a lower groove materialized more to support the quicker pace, and I can imagine if Death Grips adds a bassist for live shows it'll play better. Outside of that, the only complaints I have with the instrumentation are nitpicks, mostly around the more muted or restrained moments. I did really like 'Eh' with the ragged and blurry synths and sparse cymbals, but '80808' never really came together for me, and 'Warping' felt a little too leaden, even if it did fit with the theme of the song. Then there's 'Hot Head' - I get the choppy, noisy cluster of sounds, but it almost felt like it was playing for meme status in a 'We Are The Strange' mold that felt a little too chaotic for its own good.

But at the end of the day, by this point you're either on board with Death Grips or you're not, and for the most part I am. I'll definitely say this is a catchier, more immediately accessible release than Jenny Death, but I'm not sure the climax point at the end of the record hits as hard thematically. I would say the album would go over its target's heads, but at the same time, I think they get it and just don't care, preferring to revel in the self-flagellating madness of it all. Fans will 'love' this record, but for me... I'm still thinking a light 8/10 and a strong recommendation regardless. Again, like any time I've recommended Death Grips it's a qualified one: if you can tolerate MC Ride, some ugly yet disturbingly catchy production, and some horrifyingly explicit lyrics that go past several lines of good taste or sanity, check this out. Otherwise... well, if you're looking to dive into a bottomless pit, there are definitely worse choices out there.

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