Friday, March 1, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #014 - 'the psycho-social, chemical, biological & electro-magnetic manipulation of human consciousness' by jedi mind tricks

You know, you'd think with my background I'd be an easier sell on nerdier music.

Because I do describe myself as a nerd - I own and have read hundreds of fantasy and science fiction novels, I've been playing video games and tabletop games for decades, I regularly go to conventions, I still play Magic: The Gathering... for god's sake, I've got a small collection of swords! Even my educational background outside of my career both on-and-offline is in physics, which thanks to the ubiquity of The Big Bang Theory has been branded the 'nerdiest' of scientific disciplines, at least in popular culture. And thus you'd think that "nerdier" art would be an easy sell for me on relatability alone... but most of the time it just doesn't click, and I've struggled to pin down why.

Well, okay, on some level it has to do with the fact that just common reference points doesn't win me over automatically - it'd be nice if people actually said something with said points rather than just for a cheap pop. The larger and more troublesome issues might come with the fact that the "outcast-but-ahead-of-the-curve" veneer of nerdy spaces is just that: a veneer, and more often than not it would reflect many of the same cultural values as non-nerds do, just with an increased lack of social skills. And that's not even getting into how certain nerds have made the concentrated effort to rewrite history and erase the forward-thinking progressive values that did bubble forth in some intellectual spaces, especially if those nerds didn't fit a very specific caricature or demographic... which takes us to underground hip-hop. We already saw with Company Flow and El-P that even though all those guys were plainly nerds it wasn't like they were immune to trends in hip-hop and larger culture at the time, and so when I started digging into the debut of Jedi Mind Tricks, a Philadelphia-based group who released their debut the same year in 1997 and their content was framed as 'forward-thinking' and 'progressive' and also emphasized their points of reference in astronomy, physics, and history, cranking up that nerd cred... look, I'll admit I was cautious. But okay, this won the popular vote very comfortably, so what did we get from The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological & Electro-magnetic Manipulation of Human Consciousness, which I'm just going to call The Psycho-Social CD for short?

So, just a quick disclaimer before going forward, while this album was much easier to get a hold of than Funcrusher Plus, I do have to stress that I'm going to be covering the original twelve song release from 1997, not the mass-marketed reissue bundle from 2001 that tacks on six more songs that had been recorded years earlier - just want to keep this streamlined as much as possible, and those six tracks had been originally recorded a few years before the sessions for this album. It also should be noted that a few tracks both in the original and the reissue were included on a 1996 EP Amber Probe, and indeed the song 'Neva Antiquated' included on this project is the Dark Jedi remix - just so we're all the same page with what's getting reviewed here, especially as the original vinyl didn't receive much circulation. 

And with that being said, we encounter another conundrum, one that I brought up when I reviewed Funcrusher Plus in that the ideas and language that presented on a project like this might not feel as innovative now as they were at the time - hell, listening to this and then revisiting the newest project from Yugen Blakrok, I can totally see the roots of this kind of esoteric writing going back to Jedi Mind Tricks in the first place, and I do respect that. But what's always concerned me about this sort of retrospective look back is that I wouldn't find the distinctive elements that could make a project like this stand out even against what would come later in the underground, and while that didn't wind up being the case for Funcrusher Plus, it might just be an issue for the Psycho-Social CD. And it's actually pretty easy to pinpoint why, because for as intricate and layered as the group's points of reference are, they don't really seem to add to as much as they could beyond highlighting their transcendence as rappers and how many intricate ways they're going to destroy their rivals. And sure, there's some real flair to some of that on a purely poetic level, but I feel like once you grasp the pseudo-apocalyptic iconography, not only does certain symbolism cribbed from Revelations starts repeating itself, but there's a squandered opportunity to not tell more of a story or get deeper into some of the high-concept ideas represented by these symbols and metaphors. Now I guess when you're setting the template it might make sense to stick with the basics - and for many first-time listeners who don't have a background in symbology or literature or sci-fi or religious texts it could read as saying a lot more than it is - but there's still an odd weightlessness as the project continues, because without the deeper human connection to these stories to pull an emotional core into the work or a more developed theme, it just doesn't quite hit with as much potency, especially when it's the wordplay and iconography that's absolutely the central attraction on display! And that's not counting the points where the references just don't seem to make a lot of sense: go to 'Neva Antiquated' and we get the line '1.21 gigawatts to defeat me like Marty McFly'... but that's the wattage he needed to get home, not defeat him! Or go to 'As It Was In The Beginning', where we get lines like 'I am torture like the fear of internationalism / Nazi eugenics and economic rationalism' - maybe not the best to compare yourself to the Nazis and economic theories mostly discredited even at the time of this album's release! 

Now to be fair there are a few points where they're talking about more than just their skills: we have 'Books Of Blood: The Coming Of Tan', which espouses a lot of the ancient astronaut theory that religious figures were either aliens or seeded among our population to control us - probably not the greatest idea to spend so much of this album then drawing comparisons to yourselves through this - and then following it with the theory that AIDS was created by the G7 countries in the 60s to devastate Africa - and you call the Freemasons crazy on 'The Immaculate Conception'! But on the flip side, I really do like how the album ends: first with 'The Apostle's Creed' which slowly begins to drag things back to earth and highlight the lonely road carved by lyrical artifice and wild creativity, and 'I Who Have Nothing', where frontman Vinnie Paz describes how he suffers through depersonalization disorder. And I'll admit having this context absolutely does provide clarity to a few main points, the first being the 'verbal hologram' running motif where his rapping produces an artistic projection to speak away from himself, and the second providing some weight to the depression and apocalyptic darkness that courses through his content. And it's a shame we only get flickering snapshots of this across the album, or that the final song cuts off so abruptly before we hear more... or that most of the guest stars seem more interested in esoteric imagery for their own sake, or are just not nearly as impressive behind the microphone. I'll admit that Breath Of Judah's delivery is distinctive, but his lisping and slippery hold on the beat did get irritating, and for as forceful as Apathy could be - I like all three of his verses here - it was hard to avoid the feeling his blunter style might be a better fit for a style and production that felt a bit more conventional. I will say I dug whenever Sun Pharaoh showed up - his rhymes felt a little more carefully constructed, and it's a shame I can't find any evidence he ever put out more material. Similar case for Yan The Phenomenon - I really liked his tangled but raw verse on 'The Apostle's Creed', and yet outside of a few other scattered appearances it never looks like we got a full project.

But okay, that's just the lyricism, and while it's easily the biggest highlight, the production is the other half of the story... and I honestly wish I liked it more. Now granted, when your comparison points are producers like El-P who would come to push the sounds of the genre by leaps and bounds it's not even fair... but I will say that while the dusty, sample-touched boom-bap that Stoupe serves up is pretty damn melodic and eerie, there are a fair few tonal choices and blends that I wish I liked more than I do. The grainy wailing shrieks of the strings and the sample blend for the hook of 'The Winds Of War', the warping oily acoustics around 'Omnicron', and the faint, borderline chipmunk coo behind 'The Immaculate Conception', even if I really do like the thicker touches of atmosphere around that song, tonally it just doesn't click for me. And then you get 'Chinese Water Torture'... between the slightly tinny drum pickup against the on-the-nose drippy tone, I can appreciate the intricacies of the composition, but they may have succeeded a bit too well in capturing that vibe. Now on the flip side, I really did like the crackling thunder behind the bleak pianos driving 'Neva Antiquated', the ramshackle guitars behind 'The Apostle's Creed', and the fragmented elegance behind the sample, blasts of horns, and strings arrangement on 'I Who Have Nothing' - to opt for a bit more urgency on the song might not have been the choice I was expecting, but it definitely fits.

But as a whole... I want to be careful with my words here, because while I can absolutely see the influence of this album across underground hip-hop even to this day, I'd struggle to call it a personal favourite, even if I can definitely see in some circles why it's considered a classic. The content and bars only start to seriously coalesce near the end, and while I can appreciate how just using this style of lyricism and wordplay would place them outside of the mainstream and yet make them foundational for many acts to come, you can tell the group hadn't quite tapped into the potential of their content to deliver greatness, at least not yet. I will say I was pleased to hear little of the shock value content that I heard saturates much of their critically-acclaimed sophomore follow-up - which paradoxically means this album might have wound up aging better - but going back to my issues with 'nerdy' music, I definitely feel a similar distance, where the layered reference points get there, but the insight isn't as developed as it should be. As such, for me this is a very solid 7/10, but I absolutely recommend it if only to provide the historical context for the acts that would follow, and it's definitely worth your time - check it out.

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