The Money Store
, April 26th, 2012 10:32
There's high comedy afoot on the old web-machine these days. Press attempts to answer the question 'What are Death Grips?' have taken a turn for the surreal, like a particularly psychotropic game of Seven Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. Placing DG's music in relation to the surrounding musical landscape has become the journo's version of The Aristocrats joke. To reach the punchline "And what do you call the act...?" you must first ad-lib fervidly, with comic complexity, and maximum earnestness, on various transgressive subjects – terrorist militias, serial-killers, murder, suicide, race-relations, sometimes domestic voodoo – until, having written the word 'cluster-bomb' more than seven times in one paragraph you're almost certain that MC Ride is actually you, and you he. "And the act is... Death Grips. Ta Da!".
Then there's the genre game: mad-as-shit new classifications bandied about like a photogenic baby at a Tory Conference. It's art-hop! No, it's tech-beat! You're both wrong, it's psycho-rap (actually... that was us). Nay sir, it's Anticon-punk, it's Def Jux joins the army, it's (my personal favourite) 'post-rap'! Until... Pfft... Is it even rap music?! (See also every incensed hip-hop forum in existence). And indeed, if it isn't rap, then it's time to circle around, in a crazy hell-loop, back to square one and... What in God's name is it?
Well we're gonna make it easy for everyone. Because in outlook, sensibility, and sonics, these godless Cali fucks, with their liquid, obliterated anomaly that has baffled half the Western internet... Well, they're as Brit post-punk as Keith Levene at a raincoat convention. Let's break it down.
Here is a band, a multi-ethnic band, who consider themselves true autodidacts, with a personal-is-political approach to agitprop. Who deal in themes of self-abasement, and the insidious erosion of identity. Who, like Joy Division, use expressionist production to convey a sense of place - a monochromatic urban wasteland known as Sacramento. Who use punk as a starting point for binding extremity to the cerebral. Who draw heavily on the music of British post-punk's last champion Kevin Martin. Who, like Massive Attack - the hip-hop babies of PiL and The Pop Group - evoke a ghost-ridden inner city betwixt heaven and hell. Who meld traditionally 'black' music with white, only this time using current musical languages - swapping dub-reggae for hip-hop, and guitar dissonance for millennial digi-noise.
Like ESG, they plough tribal grooves through spooked, denatured spaces, while winning the admiration of such artists as Bjork (see the DG Biophilia remixes): post punk's greatest female artist since The Au Pairs. They talk in terms of ideas, not influences, and just as the punks censured post-punk, they have been decried by their hip-hop peers for their left-field methods. More than perfectly, they fit John Lydon's model for 'the anti-music', and post punk's de facto manifesto of 'art you can dance to'. And always but always, the golden rule informs their every move: the principle that rhythm is the only type of energy that matters, especially when the world is falling down around you (shades of Killing Joke's funk-to-beat-of-the-apocalypse abound).
When reviews starting coming in for The Money Store, criticizing the trio for being overwhelming, too alien, too dense, and impenetrable, it was as if, for a brief moment, Mark Stewart was God again, and the Human League never happened. When you begin to alienate, that's when you know you're on to something. But what the naysayers and the hip-hop purists cannot contest, is that without question Death Grips offer something unprecedented. Which, in truth, was the only quality that unified the post-punk bands into a 'movement'.
Death Grips' debut, Ex Military, fluctuated between three primary modes – tech-gothic doom; militant/aggro wrath; and the suggestion that a process of digital asphyxiation is at work in the net-age. Like Gang Of Four said of the assault on perception, Death Grips imply that it’s a process in which we are complicit. "Masochism by information," producer Flatlander called it, employing exactly the same type of rhetoric as This Heat in explanation of Deceit.
The Money Store is weighed towards that latter mode. Divested of the air-clearing effect afforded by Ex Military's guitar samples and kuduro rhythms, all we're left with is a soup of electronic interference, exhausting percussion and smothering bass-cloud. It's stultifying like a bad case of screen fatigue; tangled and sparking - the sound of frazzled, short-fusing nerve ends. And after being dragged through the DEFCON 5 hysteria of 'Fever (Aye Aye)', the fatalistic IDM of 'Double Helix' and droning horror-rap on the indescribable 'Black Jack', the overwhelming sensation is one of containment. It's a no-wave style sick feeling which not even the second half's party beats can dislodge.
So if the conventional criticism is that the sound is just anarchy, in actual fact it's perfectly in keeping with the ideas the trio discussed with The Quietus last year - bringing to life the central premise that "Everything is static... eating away at the individual". Held in a 'death grip' by the weaponry of fear, the infecting flow of digital information is designed to keep us "half dead," the trio believe, somewhat echoing Marshall McLuhan's prophecy that "the more the data banks record of us, the less we will exist". Death Grips have avowed to keep their music "real and raw", not in a macho sense, but to feel whole again amidst an "endless digital now" (to borrow from William Gibson) which, by disbanding our reality into pixellated shards, scrambles our revolutionary instincts. It's all about a distrust in your very perception, and what could be more post-punk than that?