Monday, February 27, 2017

album review: 'boy thursday' by KNIVES

So as I've mentioned a number of times, I didn't go through an angry white boy phase in my teens - I jumped pretty much from mainstream pop and hip-hop radio to power and symphonic metal, and that meant I pretty much skipped modern rock radio. And a big consequences of that is that I came to the nu-metal rap rock scene much later in my early twenties in comparison to many others - it was not a formative part of my musical evolution. And I'm kind of grateful for that, because upon revisitation with rare exception, a lot of rap rock tended to be really bad, especially in the late 90s the closer it crept to the gut-churning angst of nu-metal or the overblown and frequently disgusting machismo of acts like Limp Bizkit. This was music that rarely bothered to be tuneful or driven by consistent grooves or strong musicality, and that's before we get to the often atrocious lyrics. Now that's not saying I didn't find stuff I liked: I've always been a big fan of the Beastie Boys, and when you follow it with solid work from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Rage Against The Machine, there is a subset of this music I like, especially leaning towards more of the punk side.

And there's a part of me that feels this genre could sustain a comeback, potentially even driven from hip-hop instead of rock. Acts like Doomtree and Run The Jewels are only getting production that is more aggressive and abrasive, and that's before you touch on mainstream acts like Eminem, who I'd put money on pursuing more of a rap rock direction if he drops a record in a year or so, especially if he goes more political. And so into that vein comes KNIVES, a new band fronted by L.A. rapper J. Medeiros, who you might know from his association with Rawkus Records or his work with The Procussions in the early 2000s. Medeiros has actually been active since the late 90s - and pretty damn prolific at that, so in addition to a planned debut from his electronic/hip-hop project AllttA later this year, he's been pushing a rap rock band inspired by punk and post-hardcore called KNIVES. They have a debut record, and in the aftermath of covering P.O.S and not getting the political material for which I hoping, I thought this would be a good step - was I right?

Okay, this is an interesting case, and something I don't really encounter all that often. Since this was indeed a Patreon request we have yet another case where the record requested is pretty far from bad - in fact, for the sort of debut it is I can see this gathering a fanbase pretty fast, this is solid work - but it's also outside of genres that I usually like and peruse. And this is going beyond just rap rock - no, what Boy Thursday reminds me much more of is hardcore punk and post-hardcore, two subgenres that I've never really had time or the inclination to explore, which means that any analysis I'm going to present might have some holes in it, fair warning. In other words, while I do consider this intriguing, I can definitely imagine people more familiar with the genres liking this a lot more.

So let's start off with the instrumentation and production... and really, the rap rock/post-hardcore intersection does make for a peculiar blend of styles. In some cases, it's more straightforward towards hardcore, like the galloping stutter of the beat and drums against the sharper riffs on 'Sucker Punch' or the buzzy grinding muscle of the title track or the simply cacophonous drumwork that drives 'Wylin Inside' albeit with a weird major key melodic shift on the bridge. But sometimes the instrumentation can take different turns that opt for a little more complexity Take the opener 'Property', which features a very subdued, falsetto driven hook that in a bizarre way reminded me of Cynic with the progressive drum breakdown, but with the squealing layers of guitar playing off some gurgling synths against J. Medeiros' sharper bars, it was a genre-blend that seemed to work. It gets slightly less in a noisy Queens Of The Stone Age-esque melodic riff that plays the fizzy burble of synth and bass on 'Fine Print' that fades out into a bridge of fuzzed out distortion, but again, I can kind of see the appeal. I think if I were to highlight an element that consistently doesn't work for me, it'd come in some of the gurgling buzzy synth tones that show up on songs like the gurgling frenetic blur of 'Figurehead Catacombs' or the buzzy waves of the Mike Muir collaboration 'X's And O's', or the chiptune tones that seem to drown the melody on the verses of 'Give Me Air', or the blocky key shifts on 'Exit' that don't quite blend with the fuzzier, borderline tremolo rattles of guitar. And yet then you get tracks where it comes together like on the bridge of the closer 'Holy Toast', which probably features one of the most instantly recognizable hooks on this project and might be my favourite song here.

And yet while I can describe most of the sounds and tones on these ten tracks, which very quickly can get exhausting considering unlike a lot of hardcore punk these tracks commonly hit the three minute mark, I have a hard time putting a value judgement on how much they work in that context. It's noisy, it's abrasive, the guitar and drum progressions are certainly more interesting and intricate than I expected... and yet I wouldn't say I was wild about some of these hooks or how the tones are blended. Maybe I was expecting a little more muscle in the low-end - the bass can feel a little neglected at points - maybe I was expecting the tones to be a little grittier or better blended outside the synths trying to glue it together, but there are points where I feel like the whirling furious energy of it all doesn't quite coalesce beyond explosive statements on songs like the title track or 'X's And O's', much less actual choruses. And I have to think J. Medeiros has to take some of the blame of this: I'm not going to deny this guy can flow with the sort of intensity and speed to keep up with his beats, and he's clearly giving this his all... but I'm also not really wild about his vocal tone. He reminds me a fair bit of Zack de la Rocha co-opting a bunch of Run The Jewels flows - the comparison can be really stark, especially on the more hip-hop inspired songs - but de la Rocha also had a certain level of howling grit and assertive weight that Medeiros doesn't quite have the vocal tone to match, and it can make him come across more nasal, not always having the weight to match his more hardcore instrumentals. And again, if this is more common or accepted in hardcore punk, I'll take your word for it, but I wasn't really blown away by him here.

And yet the frustrating thing is that when it comes to his actual content, I think Medeiros is a pretty solid political rapper. The extended slavery metaphors on 'Property', the anti-corporate rage of 'Wylin Inside' and 'Fine Print', the voice of the proletariat revolution spitting of 'Figurehead Catacombs', and especially the blunt but utterly effective 'Give Me Air' which speaks about systemic police brutality and militarization, and the underlying insecurity that drives it. And keep in mind he's got real insight to back up these points, from the scapegoating of urban stereotypes and population to feed back into the toxic cultural cycle of 'X's And O's' to the frustrated musings at the entrenchment of authoritarian religion on 'Holy Toast', often commercialized and trivialized to push horrible messages. I will say that songs like the title track can be a tad tough to unpack, as it seems to be about exploitation of racial stereotypes in cinema, but the choices of words and imagery are often so stark and well presented that I almost wish I liked the music more to support the explosive ideas behind him. Hell, if I go by my three Ps of good political art, it's got the precision and it certainly has the firepower, and populism... well, it's funny, because when you decode the songs they definitely do have a strong populist streak, but the fact you have to decode a fair few of these to pull out the underlying ideas behind the rhetoric does put a damper on that, if only a slight one.

But again, I feel a little out of my depth here, because this sound and style of music is just not often in my wheelhouse - but I get the feeling if I did like rap rock in the vein of the more hardcore side of Rage Against The Machine, I'd like this a fair bit. I do wish the hooks and grooves were stronger, and I'm not really sold on J. Medeiros as a frontman when it comes to some of his delivery, but overall for me, I'm giving it a very strong 6/10. And yet if you're more of a fan of hardcore or post-hardcore or rap rock, definitely give this a listen: it's explosive, riotous, righteously angry, and has a lot to say if you're willing to decode it, cutting in a way that lives up to the name - check it out.

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