Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Death Grips - Fashion Week Review

And so continues the perplexing, confounding marketing campaign that is Death Grips' last year. From the release of the first half of The Powers That B, followed by a failed promise of its completed 2014 delivery, to the group's break-up despite being cryptically active, both of these events have subsequently crossed paths, barreling into each other, the remnants of their lies lie in Fashion Week, a 14-track Instrumental Soundtrack that spell out "JennyDeathWhen" in the song titles, the hype-inducing meme proudly displayed as an homage to the group's self-awareness. As with much of their work, sinister, mischievous messages can be found within, but on an entirely instrumental tape one's left to dissect the external material. The name, a likely reference to London's Fashion Week, of which the music sounds discernibly similar to certain moguls' experimental canvases, accompanies Sua Yoo on the cover. While odd, nothing particular stands out, until one takes a glance at her leg, plastered with the wired coffin adorning the 'Birds' music video. Then comes the song titles, prefaced with Runway, followed by letters, some repeated up to 3 times, spelling out 'Jenny Death When.' The bait-and-switch of Death Grips never fails to overstep the boundary, the fans constant unknowing is what brings them back. At this point now, it's all a game that both parties partake in, the music often falls to the wayside.

And yet, it's the music that keeps people coming back, challenging listeners to keep up with their ever-changing interests and influences. And here on Fashion Week they took arguably their biggest departure yet, relegating MC Ride to a silent on-looker, as Zach Hill and Flatlander compile tense, marauding beats to potentially accompany the former's upcoming movie. Don't attempt to look at this as an official Death Grips release however, Fashion Week is nothing more than a beat tape, not something to compare or compete with their 5 albums. And while it certainly has its due place, with a couple standout tracks, the soundtrack is really nothing more than its appendage, music to coincide with visuals. And as imaginative as some of Death Grips' fans are, one can easily see the appeal to a movie using these beats as its foundation. Unattached from the root though they seem disbanded and lost. One of the biggest critiques of beat tapes is that of repetition, and without question Fashion Week falls onto this same blunder all the same, sort of disappointing from a group so forward thinking. All it takes is one uninterrupted listen for someone to find a musical pattern, that of the basic 1-2 switch, where two separate, but sibling beats paddle back and forth between one another at the 8th or 16th notes, until the track sort of ends.

Remove the Death Grips title and you're left with your prototypical beat tape, sans the out-there and sonically-skilled mixing occurring within. The removal of MC Ride, just like it did in many parts of Governmental Plates, hurts the Death Grips sound, and not just because a vocal presence is absent. With Ride dominating the forefront the production has no choice but to conform, which leads to dastardly hazards in terms of unorthodox stylings behind the boards that toy with the listener, pulling the string away each time they think they're about to grab it to understand what it feels like. Here, there's no one to interrupt the sound, so it lingers, overstays its welcome, and fails to spin on its own axis. Each of these songs, with little examples for the contrary, could have been a minute long with no obvious differences. It was this decision by J Dilla on Donuts, the most lauded beat tape in history, that caused many to latch onto it. Excluding one of the 31 songs, none lasted more than 2 minutes, just enough time to consume, digest, and enjoy, much like a collection of donuts. On Fashion Week, regardless of if the beats are good, which in nearly every instance they are, they're played out by the first minute as the listener anxiously awaits the next one.

As I mentioned before there are standouts. Not surprisingly these are the ones that take the largest leap to separate themselves from the pack. From obnoxiously loud bass thumps to wretched synthesized riffs, it seems as though each track attempts to outdo one another, with the first 'Runway H' taking the cake for most outlandish. Sure, it falls into the 1-2 switch, but each version, one featuring a brain-melting bass, the other an ear-curdling alarm, implant their suicidal tendencies in the mind of the listener, like a virus rapidly overcoming its host. The second 'Runway H' has a distinct charm to it, three interchanging beats, two of which hardly resemble Death Grips-esque tracks, one sounds reminiscent of a 90's House rave, the other a sped-up 50's doo wop with a guitar riff that harkens back to a dancehall bonanza in a Americana diner. And lastly the first of three 'Runway N''s deserves applause strictly based on its ability to stand out, with a loop that sounds like a Haunted House run through a dance party.. The moments on here that jolt are the ones worth remembering, but far too often there's pieces too reminiscent of tracks heard minutes before, one in particular, 'Runway Y,' sounds like a remake or remaining of 'Anne Bonny,' with the same structure entirely present.

There is one aspect of Fashion Week that exceeds expectations and circumvents troubling problems with Death Grips' sound, that being what to do with Zach Hill's drums. They began are primal, raw, and wild on ExMilitary but evolved, or devolved depending on how you look at it, to electronic blurs, rigid, unappealing, and calculated. Here though he magically blends both. The tape certainly has the lingering electronic qualities, as would be expected, but there's times, like on 'Runway A' and 'T' where his humanistic elements clash with the structured electronic compositions. This battle makes for a exciting pairing that pits machines incapable of failure with a human who makes a living off his unorthodox approach. I feel a more deliberate, obvious, and exacerbated approach to this would have made Fashion Week infinitely better, unfortunately what we're left with is an average collection of beats, following sane structures that for the first time ever, make Death Grips seem tame. Now, as we found out with 'Inanimate Sensation' they certainly aren't, which only provides more credibility to the fact that Fashion Week is a one-off, soundtrack-focused release to simply treat, yes treat, their fans. Regardless of how dense the soundscapes are, the album feels intrinsically hollow, lacking the panache that fuels the Death Grips fire.

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