Tag Archives: 2012

Die Antwoord – Ten$Ion

Ninja’s got a new tattoo: “TEN$ION” right across his stomach to celebrate their new album, matching the colossal “$0$” down his back and the crude lyrics scrawled all down his neck and arms. If it were anyone else I’d be dumbfounded and nonplussed – but I’ve reviewed Die Antwoord before. You can’t question Ninja’s audacity or confidence; this is the man that rapped about scoring a record deal “in the overseas” long before he had one, after all. As a matter of fact, that deal fell through: Interscope Records apparently couldn’t handle the South African duo’s (trio’s?) radical and offensive sense of humour, so Ninja did what any responsible recording artist would do: he dumped one of the largest recording companies on earth and founded his own Zef Recordz. What results is a natural sequel to their debut album, musically updated and gleefully unhinged as ever.

First, a tangential history lesson: I once called Die Antwoord the worst rap-thing I’d ever heard, and there’s a part of me that won’t back away from that assessment. The price of entry to the Zef Side is high as ever, and an exposure to – and lyrical exploration of – $0$ is a must if you’re hoping to find Ten$Ion anything more than goofy, self-indulgent nonsense. Die Antwoord is very very weird (and fun!), yes, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Watkin Tudor Jones has premised his career on radical self-invention (go look up MaxNormal.TV, who once proclaimed himself “Die fokken antwoord”), and his cohort/wife Yo-Landi Vi$$er is no small accessory to his success. Their dedication is nothing to scoff at – name another rapper whose alter-ego is tatted as heavily as Ninja – and the artistic result is a group whose laugh-track is buried just deeply enough to mystify first-time listeners. Die Antwoord’s tri-lingual gangster rap never breaks character, keeping a straight face even when Ninja’s measure of success is being “all up on the interwebs… WORLDWIDE” (and Yo-Landi’s “Rich Bitch” certification is her ability to choose when and when not to answer her phone). In an interior sense they’re completely absurd, and outwardly dead serious – crystallizing their Zef aesthetic into a buffoonish South African kaleidoscope of Western rap imagery, ghetto-fabulous with zero interest in reflecting on how often their machismo ‘accidentally’ undercuts itself. There’s nothing like it out there.

So they’re a satire, and a very dedicated one. That shock value carried their first album to surprising success, and like any shock-group they’ve got to one-up themselves now that we’re used to their antics. Incredibly, they’re up to the task. DJ Hi-Tek might not exist, but his production has sure as heck improved. $0$ was rave-influenced hip-hop, with more than a touch of house (and even rock) – Tens$Ion drops straight into the club, with Ninja smashing through opener “Never Le Nkemise 1” over a dubstep/rave beat (ravestep?), that in turn drops right out of what sounds like a folk choir. He’s completely comfortable as Ninja now, and you can hear it: he shouts and whines, he mimes EMF and name-drops Neill Blomkamp, he’s “gangster #1” and can afford a gun now (or claims to). As a group that subsists entirely on musical energy, it’s their ideal opener; if nothing else, dubstep whips up a crowd real nicely (and is just played out enough to merit Die Antwoord’s attention). It’s more or less rave beats from there on, and Die Antwoord profits greatly from the narrowed musical direction. For those worried that fan-favourite Yo-Landi would be downplayed, she dominates single “I Fink U Freeky” with a rap style that’s enormously improved in the two years since $0$: like Ninja, she’s noticeably more confident, alternately shouting and cooing and meowing(?) her way through the track – whenever she isn’t deadpanning the chorus. Rest assured, she’s still got a voice like a demented care-bear or a clubbing chipmunk (yes it’s real, and she ownsFatty Boom Boom”), and it’s still the perfect accompaniment to Ninja’s nasal, staccato flow. Yo-landi’s successfully gone from seeming like an accessory on $0$ to co-conspirator on Ten$Ion, and it couldn’t be a more entertaining effort for it. They’re both still rapping in a head-spinning combo of English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, and they still sound like nothing you’ve heard before – only now the effort’s more balanced. Remarkably, Die Antwoord’s matured.

That said, we know Die Antwoord by now, and any band driven by the cult of personality needs to develop those personalities in order to succeed. Their trademark humour is still in check (check their videos), though downplayed from the days of Ninja bragging about (failing at) scoring with girls and “Beat Boy”’s 8-minute odyssey into supremely hallucinogenic, hermaphroditic sex (lyrics here). Lyrically, Ten$Ion’s more focused, and only suffers slightly for it; a lot of this album actually is gangster rap, inevitably tempered by Die Antwoord’s general absurdity (which never fails to disarm their imagery). New for Ten$Ion is an increased interest in pop-culture references that really sets it apart from its predecessor: everyone from Ludacris to Mike Tyson to Die Hard’s John McClane gets a chance at the wheel here, and it’s hilarious to hear Ninja and Yo-Landi turn western rap culture on its head, time after time. Of course they’re playing around when Ninja says he only likes girls that “let [him] stick [his] penis in their bum” or his wife Yo-Landi Vi$$er tells you she’s “so famous that the cops won’t touch [her]” – though he’s totally not lying when he tells of getting caught watching porn on his phone (by his mom). Even the three straightforward hype-tracks manage to keep things interesting with “Hey Sexys”’s brief political angle and heavy percussive beat, “Baby’s On Fire”’s references to Mr. T and Apocalypse Now, and “U Make A Ninja Wanna Fuck”’s general sarcasm (and thematic response to “She Makes Me A Killer”). Sure, at least one of the two skits is intensely annoying and DJ Hi-Tek’s solo track is violently homophobic (and constructed entirely out of Mike Tyson quotations), but when you hit “So What?” and hear Die Antwoord rap about their collective kid, Sixteen Jones, it’s hard not to feel a little emotional twinge – and that’s an impressive feat for the band that once taunted you with “Jou ma se poes in a fishpaste jar” (you don’t want to know).

So what can we make of sophomore Die Antwoord? Ten$Ion’s a lot more straightforward than its predecessor, the humour is less overt, and at 38 minutes it flirts with over-brevity. That said, it’s more focused musically: the production is as tight as their manic aesthetic will allow, Ninja and Yo-Landi have noticeably progressed as rappers (and actors), and they’ve finally come to the realization that no one wants two 8-minute Zef ballads in a row. For all that, they’ve retained their utterly unique stage presence, and channelled their newfound artistic independence into capping the album with the aggressive “Fok Julle Naaiers” and the absurdly offensive “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez”. Is this a sign that Die Antwoord’s going to stretch their weirdness to an even darker, tenuously-acceptable extent on their next album? I sure hope so. For now we have the thoroughly comfortable and technically improved sugar-rush of Ten$Ion to tide us over.

Waddy Jones and Yolandi Visser are committed to this project, and that takes an incredible amount of nerve. I don’t know if they’ve pushed Die Antwoord as far as it can go, but I can’t help but root for their queer, underdog sort of success. This stuff is as novel as they come, so as they say on “Fatty Boom Boom”:

“If you haven’t got it by now…” “Then you nevah gonna get it”

8.0

Published right here, January 2012

A moment with Transylvanilla:

That video up there, ‘Fok Julle Naaiers’, has some pretty nasty language in it. It’s got some pretty homophobic, rape-culture proliferating language in it. DJ Hi-Tek’s shocking monologue at the end of that video (isolated on Ten$Ion as the eminently skippable “DJ Hi-Tek Rulez”) is taken, almost verbatim, from a very famous Mike Tyson outburst you can view here. Absolutely there’s an artistic statement being made, likely there is also a comedic statement being made regarding masculinity; I’m not here to critique or resolve those artistic issues – I’m here to tell you how I think the album sounds. Die Antwoord, artistically, has every right to make these sorts of statements, and I’m not under the impression that they’re in malicious bad taste (actively promoting bigotry). I’m also not under the impression that Hi-Tek actually exists. But that’s neither here nor there.

The point is, Transylvanilla (that is, Me) unequivocally supports Gay Rights, Women’s Rights, and other generally Common Sense Good Things. The art I inspect here won’t always support those same aims, and I’ll try to let you know when I catch a particularly egregious example (thankfully, bigotry has a way of dragging quality down with it). That said, I won’t stop looking into it, or anything else – that’s what I’m here for.

Just thought you should know.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Lamb Of God – Resolution

This year marks Lamb of God’s 18th birthday – counting their fledgling days as Burn The Priest – and the band’s nothing if not persistent, earning their massive fan-base the old-fashioned way: by absolutely refusing to play anything but eardrum-pounding, southern-fried Groove Metal. Not to say the band hasn’t evolved, but by this point they know exactly what their fans want, and how to subtly tweak the formula with each subsequent release. Shedding even 2009 release Wrath’s more melodic ambitions, Resolution takes Lamb of God to heavier planes without sacrificing listenability or their trademark grooving stomp and, as they clearly intend, effectively bolts another layer on top of their established reputation. They certainly aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here (though singer Randy Blythe apparently wants to reinvent America), but what results is rock-solid, comfortable Lamb of God that proves as accessible an entry point for neophyte fans as it does a new idol for their legions of followers to worship.

Resolution isn’t a concept work, it isn’t Lamb of God’s exciting new progressive album, and it certainly isn’t paying Christian Metal any accidental homage when it exclaims “I’ve held the hand of God and I’ve sung the Devil’s song” (“To The End”). It’s mostly unpretentious, mildly political, and generally misanthropic towards those people it feels to be disingenuous or socially parasitic; in other words, it’s a Lamb Of God album. Straight For The Sun” kicks the album off with a pair of vocal cannon-volleys courtesy of Randy Blythe while sludging guitars meander underneath, and stomps slower than anything to follow (save intermission/breathing break “Barabarosa” halfway through). “Shoot me straight for the sun/I wanna be the only one left/Misdiagnosed condition/Burnt beyond recognition”  Blythe screams in a voice like a white-noise battering ram, and Resolution holds the fort, stylistically and sonically, from there. “Desolation” follows and doubles the opener’s tempo, lashing out at double-speak when it screeches “Spoken sideways and indirect/Without a single word left unchecked” – it’s hard not to get caught up in the energy when they roar “All that for nothing what a fucking waste of time” (the first of many punky chants that pass for choruses on Resolution). “Ghost Walking” has a really neat acoustic opener, and then crushing technical drumming and riffage (and a wild music video). “Guilty” is structured like a hardcore punk track (as is “Cheated”) with added crushing technical drumming and riffage. “The Number Six” actually has a sung chorus, which ought to remind you of Mastodon, but can’t help feeling a bit cheap after all the brutality of the other tracks (especially when “Terminally Unique”, which also has a chorus, bounces bass-guitar off the walls so nicely)… however, of course, it too features crushing technical drumming and riffage, rescuing the track.

So, yes, it all sounds pretty similar – thankfully, that doesn’t result in sheer repetition, which is what Resolution could very easily have done had it not insisted upon subtle stylistic oscillation between tracks. “Ghost Walking”’s acoustic opener works, it’s a 5-second oasis from all the double-kicks. “The Number Six”’s sung chorus isn’t doing it for me, but the spoken-word sections that mute the rest of the band work really well. Even the album’s progressive(!), bizarre, and self-attacking closer “King Me” proves a brief foil to the rest of the album, incorporating everything from female choral vocals (!!) to, apparently, a string orchestra (?!). Amazingly, those all work, though it gets a tad self-indulgent during the spoken word sections – which is exactly why Lamb of God has the good sense to cut them short, stomping the monologue out with a surprise riff-drop. It works and it’s surprising, and of course it doesn’t hurt that their collective metal virtuosity is always going to trump whatever stylistic decisions don’t quite stick.

Resolution is clearly designed for a particular listener in mind, and that listener likely already owns Lamb of God albums. Resolution sprawls, and non-metal listeners will most definitely have issues picking out each track’s eccentricities; it feels overlong and could stand to lose a couple of those back seven tracks. “King Me”’s general oddness could have been expanded to great effect (at the expense of Resolution’s focus), and the ‘big three’ stylistic tracks that form the album’s core (“Guilty”, “The Undertow” and “The Number Six”) may not necessarily stick for you – I know they didn’t overly impress me (which is why “Ghost Walking” and “Terminally Unique” exist). That said, “Invictus” has a hell of a guitar solo, Lamb of God know exactly what their fans want, and they’ve delivered a cleanly-produced, punishing product, no frills attached. Do you like crushing American metal with a heavy groove and shout/mosh-along choruses? You’re in good hands.

8.0

Published right here, January 2012

Tagged , , , , , ,

Steve Aoki – Wonderland

Steve Hiroyuki Aoki (a.k.a. ‘Kid Millionaire’) is an interesting character, and not just because of his Dad, or the fact that none of his musical guests have reached a consensus on how to pronounce his last name. Hang around long enough and you’re bound to hear his mangled surname circulating in dance-music crowds, whether for his own production and DJ work, or the fact that he founded Dim Mak records (giving us everyone from Battles to MSTRKRFT). Steve Aoki’s been around: he’s released tons of remixes and been featured on The Bloody Beetroots tracks and helped birth Zuper Blahq – which is why it’s sort of mystifying to find that, at 33 proud years of age, he’s finally releasing his debut album.

There are a few natural advantages that come with waiting several years to release your first LP: Aoki’s audience is already out there, he’s already won DJ awards, and he’s gone and made a whole pack of celebrity friends in the process. Many of those friends make appearances on Wonderland, sometimes providing the personality and dramatic flair that Aoki’s productions deserve (and subsist upon), and sometimes just appearing. Wonderland is, mostly, an electro-house album with a penchant for pop hooks – I’ve already mentioned that this sort of music has a time and a place – and so far as it hopes to get people all excited and sock-hopping after a few drinks, it succeeds. That being said, at 100% guest-act capacity, Wonderland isn’t really about Aoki anyways: it’s about his colleagues, and the degree to which his production can support, supersede, or salvage their performances. Ultimately, a great deal of your enjoyment here is going to be in direct correlation with your appreciation for tightly-produced dance anthems and your corresponding ability to ignore shaky lyricism, the odd generic performance, and Rivers Cuomo’s attempts to drop a rhyme over rave beats. Yeah.

That said, let’s dig in: Wonderland has the inglorious honour of opening to Rivers Cuomo rapping. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer is going to bless you with the whitest rap verse of all time (finally), and yes it’s groan-worthy. Thankfully, Aoki has the good sense to back Rivers up with some dirty rave synths, disco strings and a thumping house bass, the combined might of which save “Earthquakey People” from b-side status (though oddly not from a late-album sequel). Pay attention to that last bit, because it’s going to come up later: Aoki saves the track. As in, Rivers Cuomo is committed to eye-rolling verses like “Earthquakey people, ready to shake with the power of sound” (though his voice fits the tune), and somewhere Aoki thought to himself “Oh geez, I’d better drop stomping synths under this, or people are going to laugh” – and so he did, and as we’ll see, this more or less becomes Wonderland’s guiding philosophy. “Ladi Dadi” follows and recalls Doug E. Fresh in name, but results in more of a watered-down “LaLa” – complete with a voice like Ashlee Simpson’s – over sparkling dubstep-light that occasionally breaks into house. It’s passable and generic and it’s going to go over well in clubs because it’s fun and fast and features a dubstep drop, but there’s nothing ambitious going on when Wynter squeals “A little smokie-smoke/don’t mean a dirty joke”. “Dangerous” stumbles into third, featuring an unusually swear-y Will.i.am – sorry, that’s Zuper Blahq – dropping the lyrical gem, “I’m a bad motherfucker/I smash up the party like a bad motherfucker” over flaring organs straight out of “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff”. Again the production is infectious (vocals and all), but the lyricism is distractingly stupid, and for some might entirely break the track (should we just expect this from B.E.P. alumni now?), and Aoki again finds himself playing lifeguard, buoying a dull performance with ten years of solid DJ experience. The rest is largely the same: “Come With Me” is Polina playing the generic club-anthem card over heady bouncing synths that work well enough (and happily reminded me of Sonic when I first heard them). Again, its lyrics are very much your standard ‘oh look it is night be with me I want you’ fare, and are the sort of thing that’s utterly inoffensive in a club, but make a difficult case for home ownership beyond the odd late-night spin. Lil’ Jon and Chiddy Bang then show up to remind us that women are hot over some heavy percussion that (again) dips into house – but never anything overly engaging – and effectively crystallize Wonderland’s key weakness: despite his clearly valiant work to the contrary, Aoki’s celebrity guests are left to define Wonderland, and they aren’t an altogether safe bet.

Despite all the Blaqstarr and Angger Dimas and The Exploited (!!!) cameos going on, Wonderland passes by in a blur, albeit one that would definitely improve with the application of alcohol. It’s a thirteen track album, and you aren’t going to be able to recall (or name) every track by the end, but that isn’t to say there aren’t hills and valleys: when Wonderland hits, it hits very nicely. “Livin’ My Love”, complete with perfectly idiosyncratic verses by LMFAO and NERVO, excels with its turbo-charged pop bounce and the sheer energy of its participants (and is likely Aoki’s finest production here). “Cudi the Kid” sneaks up like a Cudi track ought to (but rarely do on his own albums), drifting through Aoki’s house-synth haze and Cudi’s immaculately autotuned drawl, with Travis Barker doing his damndest to imitate a drum-machine in the background. Sure there’s a weird little dubstep-style drop (of which there are many on Wonderland), and the lyrics are nothing groundbreaking, but again it’s the sound of three people doing what they like best, and working in concert to pull it off with heart. Heck, despite all of my heckling I even have a favourite track from Wonderland, and one I’ll be preserving for later: “Ooh” featuring Jacksonville newcomer Rob Roy. Swaggering out the gate with his best André 3000 impression in tow, he sells “Ooh” on charisma alone. He’s also the only artist here that manages to push Aoki into a background role, which he happily inhabits with dubstep wubs and electric, accenting strings. It’s a strange track, sold largely on the timbre of Roy’s voice, but he fits so nicely between the now-requisite dubstep-ery that’s it’s hard to complain. Unlike so many of the all-stars on Wonderland, Rob Roy’s a (relative) newbie and seems genuinely excited to be on deck; if Wonderland gets a single, this better be it. His enthusiasm is catching, and points out exactly what Wonderland needed: more energetic artists riding the crest of their exposure (like Aoki himself).

Wonderland’s a difficult one to assess. On the one hand, these tracks are perfectly handy for the club, and given the right pair of headphones (or monitors) they’ll all thump pretty well (aside from astounding punk-oddity “The Kids Will Have Their Say”). They’re fun tracks and Steve Aoki knows what he’s doing on the production end of things, despite a bit of over-reliance on the quickly-drying ‘brostep’ effects. On the other hand, Aoki spends so much of Wonderland apparently floating his guest-artists’ dime-a-dozen performances that it’s difficult not to be distracted by the lack of surprises, especially as a home-listener that doesn’t review dance albums en scène (that is, drunk/dancing at a club). Wonderland is always capable, occasionally quite fun, and generally hampered by its lack of lyrical and musical knockouts. I have faith in Steve Aoki’s production abilities, I really do – we might just want to tell a few of Kid Millionaire’s millionaire friends to stay home next time.

6.5

Reviewed right here, January 2012

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,