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Visions of Bodies Being Burned Will Ainsley , October 26th, 2020 08:09

In the latest album by LA experimental hip hop group Clipping, Will Ainsley finds the perfect fare for halloween

The new Clipping record got me thinking about Henry James’s novella The Beast In The Jungle. It tells the story of John Marcher, a man who spends his life in anticipation of a single catastrophe that will wreck his life, an event he refers to as the “Beast in the Jungle”. It’s a story that simmers and ripples with paranoia and tension, as well as hinting at Marcher’s comically conceited attitude. The story has parallels with Clipping’s latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned. Both are flat, monochrome landscapes veined with black humour and terror. Perfect fare, then, for a record released just before Halloween…

In the manner of John Marcher trapped in a kind of half-life, the group’s fourth album carries a tension between more ‘traditional’ experimental hip-hop and their tendency to spasmodically fulminate into brutal sonic intensity. The menace the album moves with is punctuated by these little moments of pure white noise dotted all over the album that seem to say ‘stay focused, dear listener’. Squealing drones spit gobbets of digital static on the double whammy of ‘Something Underneath’ and ‘Make Them Dead’, marking a transition from the relatively subdued first few songs into the growing intensity of the next section.

There’s an ‘Intro’ track and three ‘interlude’ pieces that ratchet up the intensity. Album introductions often feel underworked and superfluous but this one has the effect of recalibrating you. Daveed Diggs’s flow has the feel of a manic phone call to a radio station - “I’m being skeptical but shit is too real… You. Should. Run away, you won’t. Make it far”. The arrangements are sparse and feel degraded, centering around a series of giant kick drums that sound like gunshots while the increasingly twisted ambient instrumentation whirls like a zoetrope.

The last song on the album, ‘Secret Piece’, is a quiet recording of a forest scored by Yoko Ono. It’s the sonic equivalent of that archetypal shot of the haunted house getting smaller through the back window of the car as the main characters drive away. This filmic quality is true to all of Visions of Bodies Being Burned, with the press release mentioning ‘film scholarship’ and the slasher film Candyman. Furthermore, genre comparisons stretch even further back from film to fiction.

There’s a self-consciously Gothic slant to many of the lyrics: the “candlesticks in the dark” on ‘Say the Name’ or the uncanny, Marcher-esque paranoia of the line “Something in this room didn’t use to be” in ‘Check the Lock’. It’s exaggerated to the point of being almost camply Gothic, especially the perfectly-rendered image in ‘She Bad’ of “two hundred years of rust on a gate” that so deftly conjures an image of a cookie-cutter haunted house or the ghostly dungeon chain clanking sounds on ‘96 Neve Campbell’. Max Fincher, in an essay titled ‘The Gothic as Camp: Queer Aesthetics in The Monk, writes about how the “queer valency of Gothic writing... emerges in how the body can be misinterpreted”. Clipping’s notion of ‘Looking like Meat’ and being ‘Eaten Alive’ is a stark, almost bleaky funny misinterpretation of the human body.

Humour is an integral part of this record. Diggs is full of lines like “swiss-cheesed a brother” that are brutal in content but funny in form and delivery. In ‘Body for the Pile’ he explains a nihilistic viewpoint in a tone of voice normally reserved for explaining how Amazon Prime works to an ageing relative - "Grandma, you just need to press here, see? By the way there are biscuits in the tin and you just can’t run, you’re just a body for the pile." It’s singsong and patronisingly explanatory. He even raps about “three little pigs”, intensifying that sickly/sweet image by the use of a nursery rhyme. Lovely.

The album’s highpoint is ‘Looking like Meat’. Jesus Christ it’s good. There are ticker tape hi hats pasted over fractured percussion, all hissing high-end and metallic timbres. The track, featuring Ho99o9, is dominated by a squashed, muscular, distorted bass synth that booms and jerks and twitches in all its pitch-shifted magnificence. The best aggressive electronic music transcends its digital form to become something sounding hyper-natural or even primeval, like it’s been unearthed from the subsoil; ‘Looking like Meat’ is no different.

Despite being something of a hip-hop dilettante, I can’t help feeling Clipping are pushing the boundaries of what a hip-hop album can sound like. The combination of Diggs’s hyper-enunciated double-time flow, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes’s twisted industrial production, and high-concept albums strikes me as original. Lock your doors, run upstairs, and put Visions of Bodies Being Burned on, because as Diggs says in the introduction to the album, “the beast is hitting beneath”.