Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Cannibal Ox - Blade Of The Ronin Review

As the ever-elusive DOOM's, Jay Electronica's, and Dr.Dre's of the world continue to egg on their fans in hopes that they'll release a new album, Cannibal Ox, after 14 years of silence following their esteemed underground debut, dropped their long-awaited follow-up with little promotion, no frills, and a no-holds bar approach. The result is Blade Of The Ronin, a smoldering of underground New York rap aimed at tightening the tether between the gritty atmosphere portrayed and the comic book scene it visions. Cannibal Ox's debut, The Cold Vein, released in 2001 amongst a bubbling of fear, terror and anxiety surrounding America, and mainly New York City. Wheres El-P's Fantastic Damage foresaw the post-9/11 era with the event already in the rear-view mirror, The Cold Vein predicted it, molding the sound through its industrial focus, the grimy production helmed by El-P himself as a means of preparing for the oncoming millennium. How do you follow that up more than a decade later when the paranoia has already implanted itself? Simply recreate it, and throw in a heightened element of comic book vigilante, some mischievous nature, and verbose verses complete with weighty bars. 

As is the case with The Cold Vein, Blade Of The Ronin is helmed by a single producer. This time around its Bill Cosmiq, a relative unknown, but easily capable of handling such a large album on his own. The beats are dark, dingy, and pack a ferocious punch highly reminiscent of the old Def Jux days, it's clear the man has done his research because such a replication of sound and atmosphere can only be accomplished by a set few, even El-P himself has evolved subtlety past the defining traits. Each track elicits this brutal rendering of street life around the turn of the century, like on 'Cipher Unknown,' where rising synth cues give way to salient noises resembling the dank trenches in the sewers before barking dogs close out the instrumental opener. Every pungent space on Blade Of The Ronin contains the necessary drum patterns that play out like pitter-patter on garbage cans and street lamps, whereas the rumblings of inner-city life condenses down to an assortment of barraging synths and musty pianos in the background. Take 'The Vision' as a prime example of this, even choosing to include a Nas vocal sample as the essential chorus. 

What's done over these beats is another beast entirely. For better or worse, its been 14 years and Vast Aire and Vorgul Mega haven't skipped a beat. Their flow, style, lyrics, vocals, all nearly identical to their past selves a decade ago. Much of their sound has derived itself from early Wu-Tang, the parallels are obvious when witnessing their grizzled, unwavering lyrics that touch basis with braggadocios raps and violent disposition. Even the title and album cover reflect this connection too. This lyrical style has not changed an ounce from The Cold Vein, which to some is a con, and even a detractor to the album, but in reality it's what Cannibal Ox does best. There are moments here where disgruntled stories and nostalgic takes on life play out in front of the listener, like on 'Water,' where Vast Aire has a confrontation with his grandmother. On the flip of a hat though, 'Harlem Knights' enters with the lyricist ogling women, comparing those with the big booties to the monsters of Frankenstein. The diversity here is palpable, and a bit too much in the excess. There's talk of warriors, comic book villains, sex, space, escapism, life in New York streets, and everything in between. It leads to a definitive lack in cohesion, where the duo aim to recreate the sound of their past without accounting for the tension that caused it. 

Often times people will associate classic albums with falling into one of two categories. Either they create a new sound that entrances listeners with its breathtaking approach, like in The Cold Vein's case, or they simply perfected a craft, genre, or sound. The former however struggles with the sophomore slump because what was once charming, inventive, and fresh has become redundant, over-used, and cliche. Add in 14 years of separation with little improvement and you're left with an album that nearly competes with the skills of its predecessor, but what that latter is best known for can't possibly be associated with the latest release. In other words, the lust has worn off, the anxiety of The Cold Vein now a stark reality, thus Blade Of The Ronin simply falls into place, sounding like the present, not a look into the future. The production here is still superb, many tracks feature stunning melodic fixations, seen clearly on 'Salvation' and 'The Power Cosmiq,' which add a layer of depth to the release that'll insure replay ability. What will also sway listeners to hold on longer is the choruses, which surprisingly develop nicely into catchy quips, like 'The Fire Rises' and 'Thunder in July,' advancing past the appropriately made critique that underground rap can't formulate interesting hooks. 

While Blade Of The Ronin certainly acts as a successful follow-up to Cold Vein, it may have been a decade too late. Hip-Hop has progressed far beyond the sounds Cannibal Ox typically uses, even their fellow Def Jux counterpart El-P has been able to stay relevant advancing past the sound and lyrical content. Regardless, it's a refreshing trip down nostalgic lane, driving through the world Cold Vein once inhabited. Rife with comparisons to Gotham and the Dark Knight, Cannibal Ox often draws comparisons to the masked vigilante, strolling through the streets at night witnessing the crimes played out when darkness arises. Blade Of The Ronin, and producer Bill Cosmiq, does an incredible job at relishing in the past, thriving in a sound that echoed through a moment in time on edge before it entirely set in. But now that we're here, the anxiety surrounds us, and the darkness has been thrust out into the light, the messages and style Cannibal Ox portrays seem commonplace rather than revolutionary. 

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