Friday, September 13, 2019

album review: 'great hits' by SHREDDERS

You know, I've talked a fair bit recently about 'expectations', where as a critic I've gotten used to tempering them and praying for the surprise, which is a hell of a lot better than setting them high and falling short. And that's absolutely the case that I had when I was going through my schedule and came up on SHREDDERS. Don't get me wrong, I like these guys - P.O.S and Sims can spit their asses off and Paper Tiger and Lazerbeak would give them all the warping, abrasive production that they would need... but I remembered being a little underwhelmed by their debut Dangerous Jumps, and I just left with the feeling that for as single-minded and thorny as the project was, outside of scattered moments it never quite hit as much as I was hoping. 

And going into Great Hits, I'll admit my expectations were even lower: seven songs, just over twenty minutes of material, the buzz hadn't really coalesced, and they were following a Sims collaboration project from last year that was a little underwhelming and an album from fellow Doomtree crew member Dessa that is damn near a classic in my books. So I figured if we were just going to get more of Dangerous Jumps, it might be the sort of project that'd fit well on the Trailing Edge and I'd just move on, but I still wanted to give it a shot... so what did we get?

Well, I sure as hell wasn't expecting this, that's for damn sure. Let me make this abundantly clear, not only is Great Hits a considerable step above Dangerous Jumps, it's the sort of apotheosis of skills, pounding hooks, abrasive atmosphere, and focused subject matter that gave me so much hope for SHREDDERS initially... it just looked like they needed a project to get in sync to get there! If you want a comparison, if Dangerous Jumps was Run The Jewels, Great Hits would be Run The Jewels 2 - razor sharp wordplay now merged with some of the most aggressive political text and subtext the group has ever approached, fused into a string of bangers because this is the Doomtree collective and they're never one to turn down a huge hook. Or to put it another way, I'm not sure if there's a brand of hip-hop more directly tuned to my personal tastes that I've heard this year, and it might just wind up being among the best of this year because of it!

But before I get to furiously praising this, there are a few questionable points, mostly linked to structure. As I said at the beginning, this is an album of seven songs clocking barely over twenty minutes, and while it absolutely doesn't wear out its welcome or run shy of momentum, it's one of those projects where if they could cram another banger or three onboard, I sure as hell wouldn't complain! Hell, the only song I feel doesn't quite have as strong of a hook is 'Chips', riding off that subtle pulsating beat and burbling melody that breaks into the jittery synth flutters, but for a song that's a well-deserved breather, I'm still inclined to give it a pass. Then there's the compression around some of the vocal leads - it will be a complaint for some, but given the ragged, hard-left punk edges demanded by this album's content and flow, it wasn't bothersome to me in the slightest, especially as it doesn't blunt the increased expressiveness of P.O.S and Sims, who have only matured as rappers buckling under desperate frustration and righteous fury, careening from pitch-black nihilistic humour to a core of real strength that might fracture but never break.

Of course, the other major "complaint" that will be made by some is the content, and I won't mince words here: if you've been looking for an album of antifascist anthems that will throw real punches and bricks, SHREDDERS delivered in spades. And while Sims is driving the majority of this - in one verse on 'Vanilla ISIS' he hits the alt-right keyboard warrriors, the Proud Boys, the Pizzagate nutcases, the Klan, and does it all with a Rick & Morty reference to boot - it's clear he's doing it because while P.O.S isn't afraid to throw down, the stakes for him are higher. And if you think it's just confined to one song, we have 'Ayeyayaya' right afterwards, which not only reads with the weary resignation of two men who have come to the hard realization capitalism has failed them, but that P.O.S.'s doomsday prepping suddenly feels way more realistic for him and the people around him, all hammered forth by the mantra 'this machine kills fascists'. That was a line once engraved on Woody Guthrie's guitar in the 40s and while SHREDDERS draw the parallel to their art as well, the frequent references to weapons highlight there may be more engravings coming. And then with 'Shadup You Face Pt. 2' - the sequel to a 1979 song by Joe Dolce with its exaggerated slapdash rebellion - where the human element snaps sharply into focus: the tension and disgust P.O.S feels because he can't act out the same way as white men would, in the world where there is zero expectations for his behavior, all the consequences, and not the same value for his work, and then Sims torn up in an overstimulated, anxiety ridden world - a parallel brought upon by the same conditions of late capitalism. 

And if everything I just described made you go clutching for your pearls... look, none of this should be remotely surprising. Both of these men are the most 'punk' within Doomtree, the hard-left collectivism and apocalyptic preparation for this moment has been seeded all across their respective discographies - along with the hard toll this has taken on their psyches, the human element that paints a fragile but uncaring world around them - and to their credit they've set aside any veneer of compromise. You don't assume the fascists looking to displace or annihilate you are negotiating in good faith - providing they negotiate at all - you fight, and this is desperate, righteous fight music, with plenty of disgust for liberal, suburban, complacent and enabling capitalism as painted on 'Suburban Base', but fists reserved for the fascists who they know full well they'll have to fight on their own. And while songs like 'Young Bros' highlight how precarious their situation is when the system has failed them, where they have to make every fall look like they meant to do it - Sims brings back the Icarus symbolism for good measure because he's nothing if not self-aware - and even their efforts might ring as futile beneath the Sword of Damocles, as Sims highlights on 'It Was Written... Again' as he only hopes to get his before corporations roll over everything and the current U.S. government bumbles towards disaster... what else was he to do? What else can they do but create the art to inspire to the movement and then take to the streets to back it up and defend those who can't defend themselves? Call it capturing the zeitgeist of a very specific group at a very specific time that I happen to strongly agree with all you want, when the wordplay has this much flair and focus and nuance, with P.O.S sounding around the best he ever has and Sims as good as ever, this is a side I'd rather be on.

Oh, and the entire album bangs like you would not believe! Now coming from the last SHREDDERS project my previous set of issues was that Dangerous Jumps wasn't quite as tuneful as, say, a full Doomtree project where even if the synths were alien they did hold real melody. And yet Great Hits pulls some real muscle onto the bones, with the glassy synth warps only a few steps removed from the titanic contortions that SOPHIE or Arca have used in recent years - only this time married to more aggressive, intensive groove sections and percussion. Take the watery contortions that snap into the stuttering breakbeats of 'Suburban Base', or the choppy squeals behind the 808 knock on 'Young Bros' that's one hi-hat away from a trap beat... until slightly ramshackle texture creeps around the booming drums and an echoing scream, or the more conventional buzzy and minimalist west coast knock of 'Shadup You Face Pt. II' that still manages to build some ominous sizzle and a real melody by the second verse. And then when you bring in the glitchy percussion of 'Vanilla ISIS' off the deeper knock of the pummeling melodic groove that manages to fuse in a sample of 'Xanthrax' from the last album, and the portentous bells breaking across the deeper stalk of 'Ayeyayaya', or even just the textured drums that build off the stormy low-end and klaxons of 'It Was Written... Again'... honestly, I'm a little shocked more attention isn't being paid to the fusion of sounds here. The grooves feel like a split between late 90s breakbeats, the hard-hitting drums we'd see adjacent to techno that would into the edges of that era's underground hip-hop throughout the next fifteen years, and yet synth tones that are easily as challenging but as tuneful as what Vince Staples had on Big Fish Theory. If there are rough edges - again, a bit of vocal compression at points - they're limited and fit what we're getting, and yet both rappers handle this with aplomb!

So yeah, this absolutely rules, and I'm completely kicking myself that I didn't get to it sooner. Some of the most hard-hitting, forward-thinking, and tightly written hip-hop fused into seven songs I've caught this year, I can't fault this half of the Doomtree crew for just doing it again. Solid 9/10, the highest of my recommendations, and if you take so much offense to the subject matter here that it blunts your enjoyment... hate to say it, that's on you, because in 2019, I know where I stand. Because this? Absolutely shreds.

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