Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sisyphus - Sisyphus Review

Two weeks ago, two of the three players in the newly named Hip-Hop/Indie Rock outfit Sisyphus were completely unknown to me. The one name I had known was that of lead singer Sufjan Stevens, who made his mark throughout music for his unorthodox transmissions in the face of simple choices. His 2005 breakthrough Illinois! was lauded by critics and fans alike for its disjointed, unusual retelling of events in the state of the same name. From the audacious track-listing that spans 22 songs, many of which the titles reach astronomical lengths, to the differences in time, with the shortest spanning six seconds, the longest just over seven minutes, typicality is just not in Stevens’ vocabulary. So, what better way to stretch his creative power than with a rap group starring pristine perfectionist Son Lux manning the boards, and alternative abstraction Serengeti manning the mic. Luckily for us these three oddball musicians have formed a unique collection of tracks spanning various styles, all under the guise of a loosely fitted concept.

Serengeti; the rapper. Not since Shabazz Palaces’ 2011 artistic, boombap debut Black Up have I heard a rapper mesh deep-rooted lyrical content with inventive, stylish flows. From the outset it’s clear Serengeti dominates this record. Eight of the eleven tracks rely solely on his skillset to carry the burden, competitively weighing realistic scenarios with playful ambivalence. Dishes In The Sink exemplifies the former, as the rapper struggles to come to grips with his childhood problems of an absent father. While Booty Call delivers hilarity on the latter, playfully recollecting a late night rendezvous, with an animated flow reminiscent of Disney’s Sing-A-Long DVD’s from the 90’s and their bouncy subtitles. This disjointed pairing litters Sisyphus, as the front half takes a much more lighthearted approach to the back end’s more mournful messages. Serengeti’s uniquely monotone voice seamlessly weaves in and out of Son Lux’s production throughout, sometimes presenting itself so flawlessly that it seems Son Lux is forming the beat around Serengeti, not the other way around. Take Rhythm Of Devotion where his verse sounds more like a nonsensical spewing during an argument, where repeated terms carry out longer than needed, words are mixed up upon second return, and increased volume and emotion build up only to give way to the quiet conclusion as his yearning for his girl supersedes his own logic and reasoning. It seems unpredictable and unwritten, as Serengeti’s raw, unfiltered language shines through.

Son Lux; the producer. I’m a firm believer in cohesion through production. An album can work with multiple producers throughout but if you want the feeling of unity amongst a project using a single mind to formulate the beats is the right way to go. Thankfully, Son Lux, with his immense talent at rewiring intangible sounds into martial compositions successfully produced some of the most inventive beats of the year. Take Flying Ace for example. What begins as a minimalist’s dream of slow-churning, gaudy bass thumps morphs into entity after entity, before exploding in orchestral violin’s meshed with airy synths only to crash back to earth; all within three minutes. Contrast this with Alcohol, Sisyphus’ definitive masterpiece and closer. A foundation so set in stone it takes six minutes and forty seconds for its fascination to wear off, including two plus minutes in the middle devoted entirely to its being. It’s a dirty, hard militaristic beat, adorned with multiple layers of repetitive drum cycles. Couple this with Serengeti’s most dominant showing of brilliance, a flow so exquisitely conformed, attaching itself like a leach to its pray, accurately portraying the daily life of his alcoholic parents. After endless seconds of the recurring beat Son Lux erupts the sound into a cacophony of synths, pianos, bass, drums, and everything in between before Sufjan Stevens closes the track with frenetic wailings of “I am not my father.” It’s a message so incredibly sad yet powerful, matched only by the brutal muting that occurs at the end. 

Sufjan Stevens; the vocalist. If there’s one bleak instance on this album it’s the three solo tracks accrued by Stevens himself. None are particularly bad, but all three become quickly monotonous, especially to the usual Hip-Hop listener. Fortunately, with the exclusion of I Won’t Be Afraid, the backing production, resembling a dumb-downed electric-infused disco rave, complement Sufjan’s singing and dull approach. But his inclusion on this album works best when he’s countering Serengeti, whether on the hook or providing background vocals, to ten of the eleven songs. In many cases, as on Calm It Down, Stevens acts as the voice inside Serengeti’s head, projecting his feelings and emotions outwards onto the listener, something the rapper himself may be at odds of doing. In other cases, the singer works as simple pop additions, acting as the bridge between segments, the moderator between Serengeti and Lux. The overall impact Sufjan carries is rather slim however, working more as the big name on the project, rather than another piece used to tell Serengeti’s tale.

The tale here, while missing key parts, both stylistically and conceptually, detail two halves of Serengeti’s life. Woman, both those who he sees as one night stands and those whom a long-term relationship could blossom out of, dominate the front half of the record while a struggling household, one strewn with alcohol, roaches, and poverty, casts a shadow on the second half. These come together emotionally as a whole thanks to Son Lux’s varied, yet similar production, incorporating an electronic feel meant to replicate the John Hodges’ work that garnish the cover of the record. Much like the entirety of the Gorillaz work, combining multiple individuals from across genres is a risk that bears repeating, regardless of if failure is a potential outcome. Thankfully for these three, teaming up together produced a memorable record to head 2014’s batch of abstract works. The sound doesn’t always work, but when it does it succeeds in ways that drown out the negatives.

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