With my Best of 2014 post coming up, it felt like great timing to notice Shabazz Palaces have dropped a fresh, wildly psychedelic animated video for the second track on Lese Majesty, one of last year’s best albums. Fellow Sub Pop artist Chad VanGaalen provides his unique style of surreal hand-drawn art, meshing with the song’s astral imagery in perfect fashion. Check it now.
Well look, we’ve got Magic Johnson riding a slice of pizza through hyperspace! There’s not much to say about this video; the bonkers imagery speaks for itself. It fits the impressionistic hip-hop sound playfully, perfectly.
As for the music itself: there’s a reason Lese Majesty is one of the best albums of 2014. With a liquid, organic flow kinking to every philosophical whim of the duo, an end-to-end listen is more like twisting through a wormhole than anything resembling a straightforward rap album. There are a few brief flashes of familiar song structure, but they’re outliers on an album more closely resembling something from Oneohtrix Point Never, Flying Lotus, or Miles Davis at his spaciest.
Shabazz Palaces‘ new album Lese Majesty has wormed its way to the very core of me. It’s glorious, it’s freewheeling psychedelia, it’s a complete deconstruction of hip-hop forms and one of the best albums this year. Since my purple “loser edition” showed up a couple weeks ago, I’ve played it more than any album in months; even more so on my headphones at work, through the Sub Pop stream and then Spotify, where it’s streaming for free in whole: Lese Majesty on Spotify.
If you haven’t jumped on this wavelength, please have some #CAKE.
The second single, #CAKE, is the centerpiece of the album’s even-more-warped second half. An electro-jungle hip-hop riot erupts before leaping through a perfectly incongruous female soul vocal, taking flight with vintage Kraftwerk synth lasers as the tune ratchets up toward an unforgettable chant ending. It’s the type of multifaceted, twisty song that made their debut, Black Up, an instant left-of-center masterpiece.
This piece is really indicative of how Shabazz Palaces (duo of Tendai Maraire and Ishmael Butler) appear to hold no affiliation to any particular genre or sound. The middle vocal bridge slides into the beat-driven first half like a glacier, overtaking all momentum. As the tune gathers steam for its ending, the krautrock influence bursts through as the vocals craft a towering a list of places from Berlin to Neptune. It’s pointed, it’s weird, it’s confusing, and it’s fun as hell. A recent review of Lese Majesty mentioned that they’re not “the future of hiphop, but a step to the side” as if it was a bad thing. I couldn’t imagine a higher compliment for a duo wholly unconcerned with trends in this meme-driven music climate.
Also, I feel obligated to share this amazing photo of Butler. It’s one of my favorite artist images in years:
When I purchased the 2lp edition of Destroyer‘s 2011 pop masterpiece Kaputt, I had no idea that the bonus track promised on side C would slowly become the languid circulatory system of the entire album. It swims in an embryonic well from which the other tracks drink, all held breath and deep plunge. It’s patient and fragile, and just may comprise twenty of my favorite minutes.
If you have only heard the standard tracklisting, press play now. It’s rare when something labelled “bonus” actually elevates the experience of listening to a great album. The Laziest River feels absolutely essential at this point, and while I sympathize with the probable intention of encouraging vinyl purchases, it seems unfair to leave everyone else with an unfinished story. So buy it if you can, but this song can be downloaded and amended to your playlist for a quick fix.
I had nearly forgotten: this is one of my favorite things ever.
Or at least the past year.
In late 2010 this clip from a July 23 concert in Los Angeles was posted and I realized how much of an incredible force of nature Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is. Flying Lotus fans know him as the guy providing the string arrangements in the legendary album Cosmogramma, while those more familiar with J Dilla probably smile at the thought of his work as headliner of the Timeless: Suite For Ma Dukes album, a sweeping orchestral take on the late James Yancey’s productions. This 13 minute alchemic beast weaves a stargazing intro from the former into one of the sparkling highlights of the latter’s final statement, the Ruff Draft EP, into an uplifting, hard charging masterpiece.
Truly an all star production, this band includes none other than Flying Lotus himself, Thundercat (best known for 2011’s Golden Age of the Apocalypse and making Cosmogramma jump like frogs in a dynamite pond), Rebekah Raff (another Flylo alum, she of the Alice Coltrane-worthy harp ethereality) and a full set of accomplished musicians I’ll list below.
Flying Lotus (laptop)
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (violin)
Evan Francis (flute)
Dontae Winslow (trumpet)
Joey Dosik (alto sax)
Kamasi Washington (tenor sax)
Garrett Smith (trombone)
Rebekah Raff (harp)
Marcel Camargo (guitar)
Brandon Coleman (keys)
Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner (bass)
Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave (drums)
Nikki Campbell (percussion)
I’m just hoping this hints, if not at Flying Lotus‘ next album (which will be announced at Coachella) perhaps a collaborative effort or even a full length release from this Ensemble itself.
Colin Stetson has created most physically thrilling music in years. The sheer power and intricacy of his saxophone work sets my mind racing with awe and excitement, and leaves me to rue the day I laid my own instrument to rest in its case for years. It’s taken me nearly a year to come to terms with what he’s unleashed and finally share my thoughts in written form.
Not only is this man setting the vanguard for new music and expanding perception of what an instrument can sound like, he’s unspooling aggressive hair-raising songcraft in an unprecedented, instantly recognizable timbre and taking everyone along for the ride. As intimidating as the notion of groundbreaking forms of woodwind communication seems, the music itself is open and inviting, something which can and will stop your mother in her tracks as she asks, just what is that? And then: how does he do it?
I’ll begin by going back to what I started writing about Stetson when his second full length released last spring:
As an incorrigible music junky, I’m always trying to peek over the horizon, searching for those incandescent bursts heralding a surprise. The elated rush of discovering and absorbing the truly new has no sensory equal. Looking over my musical history, it seems most of my favorite albums were of this stripe: works not only deserving my love, but challenging or entirely sidestepping my perception of interesting music – making an impact in the very nature of what I find pleasurable about listening. This blog was born of my desire to share that feeling as much as I could, and this post is as true to that aim as any I’ve ever written.
Stetson records in a tactile environment throbbing with tidal bass with details crackling like dry leaves against skin – I can feel its physical impact on my body. Two major factors drive this sensation: the performance itself and the unique recording process. Constellation MVP and newly christened engineer Efrim Menuck (of Godspeed You! Black Emperor) documented his sound in a fairly unorthodox manner. One listen through and anyone would feel suspicious about the claim that the entire album was captured via single takes with no overdubs; it’s an intricate, dense layer cake of ideas and epiphanies, and it’s always moving. The truth is this: using over 20 microphones positioned throughout the room, including contact mics on his throat and the instrument itself, every song was recorded in such a way that the multitude of angles could be folded and mixed together by engineer Ben Frost into the crystalline vision it is.
So that answers the question of how he does it and finally casts light on my few organized thoughts on the groundbreaking album. In the meantime he released the Those Who Didn’t Run EP and laid bare the sheer tidal force of his recording process with two 10 minute cuts demanding attention and awe in visceral fashion. Side A presents a rhythmic onslaught courtesy of his bass saxophone and Side B weaves an astounding counterpoint with an Alto, twin of the very horn resting less than a dozen feet from where I sit.
Each of these pieces sets me loose in an undulating labrynth of sound, bouncing off the walls riding a burst floodgate of energy straight toward the exit; the first full of low frequency mirth and massage, the second a stone hummingbird skipping across rapids and over waterfalls. They’re each an imaginary car chase down a pair of rabbit holes nobody knew existed a year ago and they set the stage for understanding the monumental accomplishment of the album they follow.
Stream this now, ok?
No amount of description or anecdote can prepare you for hearing this magic yourself. I could remark at the way it can bellow and sway like giant redwood trees in a hurricane, or blast images through my subconscious: ancient armadas cast into space, airborn mountains crashing to the surface, or pews and pipe organs and church spires crumbling in earthquakes. I could mention the explorations of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, Don Cherry and Marion Brown and, hell, Pharoah Sanders and how – only cumulatively – they could prepare you for this adventure. I could mention that no prior knowlege is required in the least to enjoy this untethered journey into the heights of creativity and musicianship. To hear this is to witness the vision of a man exerting himself with superhuman effort and poise to craft intensely visionary music with tectonic force.
In this first post of 2012 I proudly present my unabashedly belated yet wholeheartedly enthusiastic response to a slice of sound that has not only dominated my listening time for months but brightened my outlook for an important piece of the future of music.
Black Up is one of the best hiphop albums I’ve heard all year (the year being 2011 but it doesn’t matter), possibly longer. I slept on this at first, honestly, because the name just seemed too hipster, too pitchfork, too much. I pictured a thousand chillwave and witch house bands lined up behind triangles and crosses, a sea of stoned faces, limpid whitewashed guitar and anonymous lazy beats. I pictured nothing interesting or worthy of my time, much less my money. I did not picture something this fucking good.
When most people think of a hiphop artist the vocals come first: style, cadence, and timbre to subject matter and storytelling. The sheer blunt force of the words themselves, inseparable from voice, embodies a delivery system of surface and substance. Crushing the underground binary of either transcending or subverting this natural order, Shabazz Palaces blow hair back with pointillistic dexterity and canny substance while folding the vocals into the dreamlike puzzle box instrumentation itself. Beatific slides like “It’s a feeling, it’s a feeling!” and “Clear some space out, so we can space out” are amplified by the very way they emerge through cloudbusting moments of clarity in the mix. The production is the most intricate and interesting I’ve heard in an impossible stretch of time. Huge and futuristic and swarming like Cannibal Ox (one of my all time favorites) but delicate and minimal in places, sometimes in the same song. Relentlessly kaleidoscopic on a track-to-track basis like Madvillain and equally playful. Taking each second as an opportunity for left turns, trap doors, and extraterrestrial launches like the best Flying Lotus material. I’m uncomfortable reducing this experience to references but they help paint a picture. Thrilling, gorgeous, head nodding and hypnotizing, worthy on its own as pure sound yet never subsuming the oft-poignant vocals, the meaning of Black Up is delivered fresh and phonetic, kinetic, poetic. I sink deeper, hearing more each time. Romantic, political, angry, meditative, militant, optimistic, futuristic, this blurs free-association and laser focus in the same moment, words and sounds in the same experience.
The duo of Ishmael Butler, of classic conscious/jazz-hop group Digable Planets (listen if you possess even a passing interest in A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, or Del La Soul; they’re probably better) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire (of whom I’ll be honest: I have no idea where he came from), is an alchemy I’ll forever thank Sub Pop (of all labels) for bringing to my ears.
My first favorite track.
Possibly the most direct distillation of the group’s ethos, with an outright nod to the original Digable Planets album in its ascendant coda.
The full album streaming free with visuals on youtube. Nice.
I should be so bold as to say that this is the equivalent of Disco Inferno (a longtime favorite of Optimistic Underground) for the hiphop galaxy. I don’t state this lightly. I also do not often insist so fully on a vinyl purchase but in this case I must spread the word on its inner beauty: the package does not resemble the semi-anonymous visual you’ve seen floating around the internet and the top of this post.
Before 2011, I had heard one Destroyer album, Your Blues. I recalled a very baroque yet earnest ballad named The Music Lovers, and nothing else. I thought of Dan Bejar (the sole permanent member) as part of an indie pop milieu I haven’t found interesting in years. Thankfully, Destroyer changed and I was wrong. Kaputt is a utopian vision of space-age late night electronic jazz pop.
First I’ll mention the atmosphere: as lush as a Ferrari made of diamonds, parked near a waterfall… bathed in the neon glow of some not-too-distant future. Every reverb-laden trumpet blast and bright synth line feels magnified, submerged in the liquid cool of Kaputt’s immaculate production. Some have mentioned the album conjuring memories of the 80s and I can’t disagree; I think it’s more to do with the painstaking detail of the recording than any genre the band nods toward. It was a time, after all, when ambitious pop albums were a slightly more common sighting.
If you’re familiar with Miles Davis‘ monumental Bitches Brew, you’ll have some idea of the tone and color the omnipresent trumpet takes on as it darts through the album from beginning to end. Muted and echoed at godlike levels, it’s an apparition as much as a driving force. Accenting and elevating the songs, highlighting the utopian feel, it’s a major aspect in cementing this sound in memory. Another is Bejar’s voice. With a deliver both earnest and cool, his affecting lyrics take impressionistic flights spiked with lump-in-throat moments which remind us: he’s not just our tour guide on this twilit adventure, he’s sharing the story of how we got here.
This chilled out, slickly psychedelic album is polished pop of the highest order. Crackling with an energy and intricacy unheard of in Bejar’s (former) circles, it unapologetically stands out with a crystaline picture of a time we’re not living in. For me, it’s the future. I’m sure this has something to do with my upbringing in the aforementioned decade; this is how the future was supposed to sound then! You may hear the past. Either is a fantasy wholly worth inhabiting.
If you’re like me, you may need more assurance that this isn’t the tired indie pop you may expect (or fear) it to be. So try this:
On second thought, everyone watch that. One of the most original, thrilling, and straight up funny music videos I’ve seen in a long time. 80’s girls with wet hair, desert mirages, and flying whales! Wow. That just made me like this even more. Anyway…
[you can get this straight from label merge, or even at amazon]