by Ian Feigle (@i_feigle)
Death Grips, the Sacramento-based experimental conglomeration of noise-rock drummer Zach Hill, producer Andy Morin (Flatlander), and artist Stefan Burnett (MC Ride), has released their sixth full length, Year of the Snitch (YOTS), after two years of unchecked anticipation and message-board rumors. But despite the rumors, YOTS is able to meet, exceed, and break all of the skeins of hype fans swaddled the release in. It is everything a Death Grips fan would expect, which is music that dodges categorization and presupposition. It sounds like Death Grips, obviously, but at the same time doesn't sound like what you'd expect, obviously. The album as a whole is filled with subtleties of self-sampling and mysterious collaborations. It sounds like... well... it sounds like the boys. An auditory flow runs through the album that creates a sense of unquestioned cohesion, each song somehow enmeshed with the next with no apparent segue. The flippant-nihilistic mentality and pummeling production techniques deployed by Death Grips on previous albums are still apparent, but they have been transformed into a more idiosyncratic yet refined incarnation that is instilled with Morin's production nuances, Burnett's maniacally syncopated lyricism, and profound performances and creative direction by Hill.
YOTS is riding the seven-year crest of Death Grips' confounding output. Smashing the mixtape scene with their self-released Ex-Military in 2011, Death Grips came to the attention of Epic Records, who would release their first major LP, The Money Store, in 2012. In the following years, Deaths Grips would break with both Epic and Warp Records, leak music for free despite contracts, release five more albums, produce endless amounts of videos, cancel tours, abandon shows, break up, reunite, and readjust their grip over their creative output. With each new release, the Death Grips discography grew more and more complex with full instrumental albums, albums completely performed on Roland V-drums triggering Björk samples, and torrent leaked albums with cover art of an erect band member––not to mention the three full-lengths from Hill and Morin's side project, The I.L.Y's, in addition to the group's output.
Production on YOTS was announced in a comment attached to the digital release of 2017's Steroids (Crouching Tiger Hidden Gabber Megamix) EP. Heralded to the group’s followers through a feed of mysterious social media posts throughout the year that would span between the Steroids' release and YOTS, Death Grips revealed collaborations were ongoing with Shrek director Andrew Adamson (heard in the intro of "Dilemma"), Tool bassist Justin Chancellor (whose credits on the album still remain unclear), and turntablist DJ Swamp (who can be heard throughout the album scratching and cutting samples of previous Death Grips' releases). Aside from the sparse social media updates and the social-feed-innundating excitement of "Death Grips is online" from fans, Death Grips remained relatively low-key in social-media feeds until a few weeks before the release. At that point, the singles and their videos started hitting YouTube. The first video and single for the album, "Streaky" was released in May, followed by five other tracks in the weeks before the release, consisting of nearly half of the thirteen track, thirty-seven-minute album. As each new single was released before the album dropped, I found myself a little disappointed by each. None of the songs really excited me all that much by themselves. They seemed hollow and anachronistic for where I thought Death Grips should be creatively at this point in their career. Maybe the least strong songs were leaked on purpose. Maybe I just didn't get it at the time––something many listeners suffer from. Maybe this was the end of Death Grips pushing the boundaries of experimental hip-hop and twenty-first century music as a whole. But those feelings changed as I began to listen to the album. These songs were no longer stand-alone pieces to be embraced individually, but were now a part of something larger that was beginning to make sense. Everything fit in its right place in the context of the album, and suddenly, nothing felt unfinished or overlooked but complete, complex, and provoking, urging me to listen over and over again.
The opening track "Death Grips Is Online," a title nodding to their obsessive fans, plays with a sense of awe and bliss that is equivalent to the feeling of looking at a notification on your phone reading the same thing. You click on the link and fall willingly into the layered world of creative nooks that is part early 90s Euro-rave and part neo-punk metropolis, "pretty, pretty nine in your city motherfucker, no laws here." Shoe-gazing tourists in a city full of crime. "Flies" follows a disorienting structure that is snapped together with the precision of DAWs. It stutters in intensity with Ride's alternating monotone and livid states during the verses and the apathy he composes during the choruses. A sense of ennui builds and then unwinds in detuning chords that resonate through the end of the song and into the starting rotations of the over-driven driver of "Black Paint." Named the song of Summer 2018 by Christopher Weingarten in Rolling Stone, "Black Paint" pummels forward with thick and subwoofer-driven guitar tones and near-motorik beats of Hill’s live drum tracks that have almost been lost to the Death Grips' sound. Hill can also be heard singing in the choruses, "I require privacy. I'm always thinking finally, dreaming, feigning." This was an added delight to hear him chime in along with Burnett after years of vocal silence in Death Grips, despite the obvious comfort he has displayed behind the mic on previous solo works.
Not only can Hill be heard behind an acoustic kit again on "Black Paint," wailing in a more deliberate manner than usual, with interstices of sweeping drum-fill samples between accents, but also on songs like the instrumental "The Horn Section," the jazz-prog "Dilemma," the reigning analog terror "The Fear," and the fierce "Disappointed.” "Dilemma" is funky with what seems like the spirits of session players guiding its performances. With it's bouncy bass line so prominent, I'd like to think that this track is one of suspected many that Justin Chancellor makes an appearance on during YOTS. The chorus is catchy as all hell and kicks along with the shuffling drum moves, making it one of the most explosive sections of the album. "The Fear," possibly the song most talked about by fans, is wildly fun and dark. Descending and jaunted piano runs lead the song forward with Hill's crash-riding beats. Burnett's exacerbated yells open each verse in almost a humorous manner, but things get terse during the choruses with Burnett and Hill call and responding "I feel so sick today. (I'm afraid to be here with you.)" Ominous samples of "Jump" are whispered throughout the song, a sample that has only added mystery to the conspiracies fans have surrounded the Death Grips mythos with.
As the album turns toward its last track, "Disappointed," we come across familiar territory again, and the listeners find themselves anything but disappointed with the performances the boys have provided us on this new release. The ultimate track crashes and flies at your face with Hill's famous heel-toe technique and what I suspect to be another Justin Chancellor appearance on bass. Hill's vocals sing the refrain "Disappointed" like a frog-throated cartoon bird that floats over the songs momentum. Burnett punctuates his lyrics by hitting the on/off button on his intensity gauge. Tones of the utmost intensity burst from Morin’s board in the breaks between the crashes of the chorus. It moves and moves and then leaves us on the side of the road, stranded and waiting for the next Death Grips’ release to pick us up.
Other songs of note on the album are the sixth and seventh tracks on the album, "Hahaha" and "Shitshow." Both of which are drastically different from each other but represent the lengths that Death Grips are willing to go to follow their creative direction. "Hahaha" opens with a childlike intro and DJ Swamp scratching samples from No Love Deep Web's "Lock Your Doors," and then drops into a down-and-out black-lit hip-hop club filled with moaning female vocals that eerily transform in pitch. The song's vibes are undeniable and obvious. While "Hahaha" may be smooth and confident in its coolness, "Shitshow" is a wild ride of un-danceable thrashing similar to Bottomless Pit's "Giving Bad People Bad Ideas" or Hill's "Green Bricks" from his 2010 solo-album Face Tat––which was produced, recorded, and mixed by future Death Grips member Andy Morin. It is the sum total of the band's history in a simple sentence. We are reminded "It's a shitshow," by a female text-to-voice translator voice that seems reminiscent to the psychic-woo-woo that tells us we need to vibrate higher in Ex-Military's "Culture Shock." Burnett smashes through lines of verse with blasting guitars and drums that are sort of playing with each other but aren’t really. The song is tense and expects you to keep up with it. Every release in tension is guided by the all-understanding and consoling refrain of the text-to-voice translator reminding us, "It's a shit show." As if reminding us that there isn't much else we should expect from the boys.
Death Grips have really combined their creative forces on YOTS. Morin is at the top of his production game with a library of patches, samples, and manipulations that flow with both subtlety and brash decision making that make YOTS a complex and multilayered experience. Burnett's flow is as elaborate as ever, spitting between the accents and downbeats, bursting with energy, yet coming off a little more subdued than he has on previous albums. And Hill is constructing a more refined style of playing and writing that is able to work both inside and outside of standard songwriting approaches. But nothing about YOTS is inside the confines of standard; it is an exceptional example of creative expression that has massive appeal because of its idiosyncrasies. All three work with such intensity, and YOTS shows how far they are willing to push each other's creative limits, and break the boundaries that have tried to hem them in. There is nothing to compare Death Grips to. They are not all hip-hop. They are not all experimental. They are not all anything, but they are undeniably themselves.