Monday, November 14, 2016

album review: 'a fistful of peril' by czarface

Sometimes I've got a lengthy diatribe to open up these reviews... and sometimes I really don't. Sometimes the formula is so strong, so well-refined, so deceptively simple then complicated then simple again at its core that you don't really need to say a lot. Sometimes, if you're a fan of the genre and sound, you just get it.

And for me, Czarface, the collaboration project between underground duo 7L and Esoteric and Wu-Tang member Inspectah Deck, is that project for me. On the surface, it's over-the-top, old-school hip-hop that goes hard as hell in terms of bars, but peel beneath the surface and you find the meticulous construction in interweaving, explosive samples and interconnected rhyme schemes. And yet at the end of the day, it's not a record that's aiming to do anything beyond bringing back some old-fashioned, hard-hitting lyricism back into the game, and for the most part that's all you really need. As such, even though there's a lot of fantastic punchlines crammed into each Czarface record, especially the excellent sophomore project Every Hero Needs A Villain that was inches away from my top 25 albums of 2015, it's also a record that I don't feel the need to dig into in detail, half because the punchlines speak for themselves and half because so many of the grooves and flows give the album an easy-going charm that's hard to replicate.

But while of course I was going to cover A Fistful Of Peril - cute reference there - I was a little perplexed by what I had heard about it. For one, it swapped out guest stars like GZA, R.A. The Rugged Man and Method Man- the latter who featured on 'Nightcrawler', a song that very nearly made my list of my top 50 songs of 2015 - for artists who might not have the same name recognition. Sure, we got Psycho Les of the Beatnuts, but then when you throw in Conway and Blacastan and Meyhem Lauren - the last of whon I wasn't all that impressed with on the last record - I was a bit concerned, especially considering this project was a lot shorter than the last, down from nearly an hour to around thirty-five minutes. So okay, maybe trimming off the fat would help, how is A Fistful Of Peril?

Honestly, I wasn't wild about this across the board. It's still good - as I described, the Czarface formula has been proven to work pretty effectively - but where Every Hero Needs A Villain felt bigger, rougher, sharper, more energetic that its predecessor, A Fistful Of Peril... doesn't. In terms of grimy old-school boombap, it's got some great moments, but somehow they don't quite add up to as much as I was hoping, pretty much across the board.

And again, it's tough to pinpoint exactly why, because it's not like Esoteric or Inspectah Deck somehow became less potent lyricists. These guys can both flow ridiculously well, fusing eclectic lyrical ideas and concepts as they throw bars back and forth with distinctive vocal tones. Now you could make the argument that they don't really differentiate their content or style of punchlines between them, but that was mostly the case on previous records and again, these guys are great rappers and do have some solid chemistry... even if in the midsection of the album it does feel a little like Esoteric isn't bringing nearly as much intensity as you'd hope on songs like 'Machine, Man & Monster' or 'Dare Iz A Darkseid'. And it doesn't help that the guest stars aren't quite on the same level as those they replaced - I dug Blacastan on 'Tarantulas', but Conway's delivery and bars didn't have the same colour or flair compared to the rest of Czarface - a lesser issue with Psycho Les on 'Dust', but even still, it didn't quite blend with the rest of the song's style. And then there's 'Steranko' with Meyhem Lauren and Rast RFC... again, Meyhem Lauren was underwhelming, but Rast RFC's more restrained, sinister set of bars had the descriptive flavor to work, even if the tone felt a tad too dark.

Granted, tone in both lyrics and instrumentation might be at the root of my issues with this project, and really highlights one of the tricky balancing elements of previous Czarface projects. With the blend of hyperbolic and combatitive language and nerd reference points in wrestling, comics, fantasy, or even sports, you can typically go one of a few ways with tone: push into more cartoonish territory, or step towards more serious subject matter, careful to balance the harsher elements of language or lyrical flourishes to match the gravity of the content. Run The Jewels are a good example, as they pursued both of these options in recent years - the former on their debut, the latter on Run The Jewels 2 - and Czarface were also working in that lane, tending to use the broad cartoonish blend of samples, references, and humor to balance everything out... but A Fistful Of Peril doesn't really hit that balance as well. The instrumental tones and sound are darker, they tend to be harsher and less melodic, which when placed against samples that are still as broadly cartoonish or are more steeped in modern nerd territory - I could swear there are both figure and comic unboxing video samples on a few of these tracks... well, the balance feels a lot more tenuous. And that becomes an issue lyrically when the majority of punchlines pull from Game Of Thrones, Stranger Things, Marvel Comics, Peter Jackson and Ray Harryhausen movies, and a fake commercial for Czarface pajamas... and not only are your guest stars not really on the same level, but your production isn't really either.

Now that's not saying the production is bad - far from it, it's got a scuzzy grime to it that's certainly likable and can hit with some impact, but take the 'electric level' intro and outro as a prime example of the shift in sound: windswept gurgling synth in minor chord progressions that breaks into 'Two In The Chest' with flattened guitars and bassy synth gurgle carrying any melody against sleigh bells... and I can't be the only one who was expecting a little more impact and punch and flair, was I? The sonic palette is similar to Every Hero Needs A Villain, but the beats and production don't seem to have the same depth. Similar case for 'Czar Wars': even with the more prominent guitarline driving off the blur of cymbals and the collage of samples around them, the beats and grooves don't seem to hit with the same impact. The blocky crunch of 'Dust' does get there with the noisier drums - as does the bass-heavy groove on 'Talk That Talk' against the eerie twinkle of guitar, the warping guitars that play off the deeper punch of the beat on 'All In Together Now', and the rattle of bass against the scratchy percussion, cowbell, and dirty horns of 'Revenge On Lizard City' that has that ridiculous Czarface pajama commercial at the end. Hell, the thicker, bigger synth and drums against the reversed guitar leads on 'Steranko' are actually pretty menacing with a bit more muscle, the scratchy switchup into the organ saturated second half that breaks into a stalking guitar tone... which they unfortunately pivot out of again in the final minute for something a little flatter. But when we get to slower, more eerie tracks like 'Machine, Man & Monster' with the twinkle of keys and drippy snap against the main guitar and bass groove, or maybe 'Dare Is A Darkseid' with the wheedling synth effects against the deeper drums that switches up into this fantasy-inspired melodic interlude and it just feels wonky, or the giant snore of the backing tone on 'Tarantula', or with the blur of spacey, gurgling synths against the thicker bass beat of 'Sabers' - I just can't get into the groove in the same way.

And maybe that's part of the larger issue with this album as a whole: yeah, it might have tilted slightly darker in the instrumentation, but it did so at the expense of the more colourful melodies, the swaggering energy, and the muscle that made previous projects connect for me. A Fistful Of Peril pushes that balance to the limit - yes, the bars and flows are great, but balancing them against production that feels smaller and less catchy and fun strikes me as a misstep. I appreciate a desire to test and expand the formula, but when you also pair it all with songs that feel more abbreviated, subject matter that's not going deeper, and less impressive guest stars overall... I'm giving this a 7/10 and a recommendation, but not more than other Czarface records. It's still fun - 'Dust', 'All In Together Now', and 'Revenge On Lizard City' are all damn solid songs - but they have done slightly better, and I can only hope the balance corrects itself soon.

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