Tag Archives: Music Reviews

The Bronx – The Bronx

The Bronx are a Hardcore Punk band out of Los Angeles. Their latest album, The Bronx, comes on the tail of three previous LPs, all named The Bronx. They also run a (surprisingly great) Mariachi side-project called, well, Mariachi El Bronx, whose releases number Mariachi el Bronx and Mariachi el Bronx, respectively. Bronx Bronx Bronx. Now while we wait for semantic overload to sink in and ruin that word forever, I’ll say straight-up that their latest The Bronx came as a pleasant surprise to me. There’s a problem endemic to reviewing this sort of Punk music, and the oddly non-New-York-based Bronx’s obsession with their own name sort of digs at it: yes there’s the pride, the absolute working-class DIY love of the thing, but there’s also the major caveat that every Punk band sooner or later has to face: the looming threat of repetition. The vastness of the genre, the shadow of the thousands of bands that have come before, very much in the same vein, very much in love with the craft and the raw simplicity that is so often Punk. It’s enough to give a man expectations, and it’s the sort of thing that makes hardcore Punk divisive: it’s either going to fit you like an old, holed glove, or you’re going to reject every part of it like the smelly old sock it basically is. Now that’s not to say that Punk hasn’t exploded creatively over the years – and of course it has, it started creatively – but not every record needs to be David Comes to Life. We can’t dine on genre-pushers like Jane Doe and Chimerical Bombination every day of the week and we don’t have to: there’s always going to be a place for that raw energy, that simplicity. Portraits of working-class pride, desperation, giving in to temptation, empowering oneself through sheer, independent force of will – there’s always going to be a place in Punk for that sort of thing, fueled by a few guys with guitars and drums and one or two that happen to yell a lot. That’s what The Bronx is here to do, and they get that feel right. If reviews of Hardcore Punk are by necessity a little more passion-based, a little less wordy and technical than (my) other reviews can get, well that’s just fine: I liked it.

The Bronx is a straightforward album, and that’d be more of a weakness if they weren’t talented songwriters. The album opens on “The Unholy Hand” and the energy is undeniable; the band’s on fire, there’s a great sense of motion we’ll encounter later on the supremely awakening “Youth Wasted”. “Are you the Antichrist or the Holy Ghost?/Do you wanna die or just come real close?” vocalist Matt Caughthran screams over the chugging riffs below. “The Unholy Hand” drops like a bombshell, and the production is as full and lush as we can ask for this sort of thing – without ever threatening that critical raw charge we love so much in Punk. Turn it up. We’ll hear that razor’s-edge energy again on “Under the Rabbit” where Caughthran gives up the simple and sharp “This is the best life my money can buy!” He’s got a workmanlike dedication to that yell and you’ll become real familiar with it over the following 40 minutes, in all its yelps and strains.  Thankfully he’s got the chops and variety to make it work – “Youth Wasted” and “Too Many Devils” have downright sing-along-friendly choruses, and The Bronx is frequently more melodically savvy than I’d come in expecting, even if the lyrics aren’t likely to surprise you. Is it party music? It sure is – whichever songs aren’t about standing up for yourself are about getting through the tough times in between (or failing to), and the album only slows twice: for “Torches” (a vaguely surreal take on the inspirational number, and surprisingly poetic) and “Life Less Ordinary” (the album’s obvious misstep and token slow song, a clean-sung number about feeling weird being the center of attention at a party. Or a rockstar.)

All in all The Bronx a party record, with flashes of sobriety and depression enough to stay relatable in the way so much blue-collar Punk aspires to be. I said it about Monotonix and I’ll say it here: this is music to spill beers and kiss girls to, with a touch more reflection that usual. No moulds are broken; it isn’t complicated and it doesn’t want to be. The argument can be made that there isn’t a ton of depth (a charge we can level at a lot of Hardcore Punk), and I suppose there isn’t, though the flashes of lucidity do much to lift The Bronx above amateur status and there’s an earnestness to their delivery that is, at its best, ruggedly inspiring. They’ve been doing this a while – The Bronx (x4) and Mariachi el Bronx (x2) can all attest to that – and this latest The Bronx certainly fits the canon. Don’t dig too deep, don’t expect a musical magnum opus, but you’ll have fun: The Bronx are a pleasant surprise and a boot in the ass. I bet their shows are a blast.


Reviewed right here the day of its release: February 5th, 2013. 

This album is new enough not to actually have any videos. And so enjoy Mariachi El Bronx there in the second slot.

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This is a long one, folks, so let me summarize it for you here: if you work anywhere like I work, you know that A$AP’s a bit of an institution these days in popular hip-hop, and there’s a reason for that. The production work on his latest album is out of this world (frequently fairly literally), and makes up for any boredom you might get from his lyrical stylings, which are mostly par-for-the course. When it’s good, it’s Really Cool, and that’s a function of some masterful production work and A$AP Rocky’s frequently surprising ability to push that musical ambition to his rhythmic advantage. Read on, and see what the heck I mean! 

To the uninitiated (and really, are there any of us left?), A$AP Rocky’s appeal can be difficult to articulate. “Is he a great rapper?” is inevitably the first question we want answered and, well, no. Not specifically; he talks liking his clothes, his women, his ‘A$AP killers’, and on very rare occasion a couple of other things – albeit with a great sense of rhythm. “Is he a fascinating man? Is he one of rap’s new weirdos?” we ask as well, because of course sheer weirdness can be redemptive. Again, uh, nope, at least not lyrically. On an album that also features Kendrick Lamar (hyperventilating), Danny Brown (doing his best Muppet-on-Adderall) and Action Bronson (…“my shawty gallop in the morning on the beach like a Chilean horse”), Rocky’s hardly the strangest or most intriguing figure, and we have to hope he knows it: he features those three on the same damn track. At least on a vocal and lyrical level – and this is before we confront Clams Casino and Spaceghost Purrp, the elephants in the room – Rocky can come off as more of a tour guide than a rapper. And while he did co-executive-produce the album, and he is a talented curator, Professional Sideliner isn’t a promising statement for his actual rap career. So let’s ask Rocky why he’s cool:

“I said it must be cause a n– got dough/Extraordinary swag an’ a mouth full of gold” – “Goldies”

A-ha! Mystery solved! He’s rich! …And of course there’s much more to it than that, but that’s where any discussion of Rocky is doomed to start, if not end. A$AP Rocky (keeping in mind that this is par for the course in breakout hip-hop) is a rapper whose fame and hyper precede him to an absurd extent. To an earlycareer-defining extent. Come on, if you know hip-hop you have an opinion on the 24 year-old named Rakim Meyers: either you think he’s a ridiculous, overhyped combination of Tyler the Creator’s production palette (and pitch-tuned growls) and Kanye’s obsession with fashion, or you think he’s the harbinger of a new and brave sort of hip-hop, as quirkily fashion-conscious as it is concerned with repping the hood with minimalist beats. Listening through Long.Live.A$AP, and its predecessor for that matter, it’s difficult not to be drawn to extremes: the initial listen is inevitably a polarizing one. Which is one way of saying that I Hated It At First, or rather maybe I hated Rocky, or perhaps his hype machine. And so the truth of the matter and the man behind the 3-million dollar mixtape – which remains an irredeemably heavy-handed marketing ploy – lies, as it always does, in an an open-minded absorption of his album. So let’s drop the paper-bag-princess high-fashion and the worldwide sold-out shows and the hyperbolic interviews for now. This is marketing nonsense. Beyond A$AP Rocky’s name-calling and fashion-repping, what’s Long.Live.A$AP actually sound like?

Truth of the matter is, provided you’re the one person that slept on Live.Love.A$AP, it sounds like nothing you’ve quite heard before. While Rocky’s actual lyricism is your standard fashion-rapper excess (“PMW” not meaning Professional Motorsport World, apparently), the production here is absolutely out of this world. Openers “Long.Live.A$AP” and “Goldies” cleave close to Live.Love.A$AP’s comfort zone, delivering hazy and disorienting beats that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Live.Love.A$AP (or Goblin for that matter), but the album absolutely explodes from there. “Lvl” and “Hell” reunite listeners with Clams Casino, the minimalist-savant producer recently hailed by Brian Eno, with back-to-back production the likes of which almost seem ill-suited to rap music to begin with – and certainly mainstream rap music, which is of course Rocky’s sphere. That said, aside from “PMW”, which cleaves a little too close to lounge-commercial music, the effect is completely impressive. The beat on “Lvl” washes over like rolling waves of white static, with clipped vocal samples dropping between phasing synths and a dead-slow snare hit. To his credit – and the slow realization of this reviewer – Rocky drops in single and double-time verses, halting his flow and reversing it into seemingly every vocal cadence he can, turning what could easily have been a funeral dirge of a purple-drank track into a hazily engaging stunner of a single. This all occurs before Clams closes the track with an apparently wordless and utterly haunting choral sample that is both eery, surprising and utterly appropriate. It’s a fascinating beat, and unlike anything you’ve likely heard before. With Spaceghost Purrp out of the picture the extent to which the other producers complement – and occasionally ape – Clams Casino’s bizarre production style is Long.Live.A$AP’s greatest virtue, and man do they do it well. “Hell” gives us Santigold delivering “Me I want everything, it won’t take me long” with a sort of detached confidence that comes off more eerily prophetic than boastful over Clams’ second beat. There’s a frankness to her delivery thats powerful, as there is in Rocky’s when he delivers the surprisingly able “N-’s call me prophecy/swaggin’ in philosophy/white on white waggin’ call that mothafucka Socrates”.  The beat marches trenchantly forward: again it’s dead slow and dusty, echoing and intentionally granular. It works beautifully. So much of the album functions this way that the hazy, detached two-step quickly becomes its M.O.: “Pain” is a slow-motion nova of synths, pulsing and swelling. The Hector Delgado, Friendzone and LORD FLACKO-produced “Fashion Killa” is absolutely gorgeous and rests two-step, snapping snares over a sunny, looping vocal sample that would do Clams Casino proud. It’s likely the coolest beat I’ve yet heard in 2013’s 14 days, and it’s followed by Danger Mouse’s utterly sobering “Phoenix”, Long.Live.A$AP’s major comedown (on an album filled with, arguably, nothing but comedowns). “Phoenix” drops uncut piano and drum samples onto Rocky’s now-signature vocal echoes, concisely bringing the album back to earth in time for “Suddenly”’s last-minute centerpiece. Describing in-depth any more of the production tricks feels like a spoiler alert: if you’re a fan of ‘producers’ albums’, you can stop reading here and just buy it. Long.Live.A$AP is, for two-thirds of its running time, a masterpiece of spooky, nearly-ambient hip-hop minimalism, and a much more concise one than its predecessor. Under a good set of headphones, tracks like “Phoenix” are staggeringly cool and make a compelling argument all their own for Long.Live.A$AP’s lasting contribution to pop-rap production.

That said, if you’re reading along with the track listing in mind, you know I’ve skipped the middle third of the album, as well as Rocky’s lyricism. There was a reason for that. Through all the blurriness of Long.Live.A$AP’s first fix tracks, the listener is meant to sink deep into the cuts. It’s relaxing and empowering all at once – that’d be the effect of dropping what’s effectively a swag-rapper over such cushioned, airy beats. Track seven, “Fuckin’ Problems”, produced by Hit-Boy and C. Papi (Drake, weirdly, because they all need aliases), aims to change all that. In fact, for that track and the two that follow it, Long.Live.A$AP changes completely into a very weird party album. This is a tad jarring. “Fuckin‘ Problems” gives us 2 Chainz yelling about two sentences on repeat, Drake rapping in his surprisingly capable autotune-timbre and Kendrick Lamar warming up for “1Train” by rapping about his dick a lot. The subject matter is par for the album, but Drake, Kendrick and 2 Chainz’s delivery isn’t – like the astounding and preposterous “Wild For The Night” and “1Train” that follow, this is your wakeup call, and all three artists sound fully energized. If you’re a hip-hop traditionalist or looking to party, these are the three tracks that could be safely hauled out and called and EP or a particularly potent workout mix. They’ve opted for a strange sort of pacing, but nowhere near as strange as hearing Rocky go toe-to-toe with Skrillex on “Wild For The Night”… and having it work. There’s something to be said for Rocky’s consistency, or at least his dead-set determination as a rapper: he might not have a whole lot going on creatively in his lyrics (and he doesn’t), but I’ll be damned if anyone else can keep up quite as well with Skrillex’s now hilariously-familiar laser assaults. As he does with every other beat on the album, Rocky keeps Skrillex under his thumb, and this is impressive – it’s easy to take for granted the way his delivery sinks into the production here, and it’s easy to forget that no one else is making popular, non-underground hip-hop quite this out-there in terms of production. It’s somewhat of a system-shock, then, when he brings in every other weirdo for what amounts to a drug-soaked free-for-all on the jaw-dropping “1Train”. Featuring Rocky himself, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T. over a string-quartet beat opulent enough that you feel Rick Ross might drop through a wall at any moment, it’s astounding and astoundingly out of place in an album otherwise so locked into its spiritual center of floaty synths and ghostly snare hits. And, just as surprisingly as Rocky’s safely-ignored lyricism interlocks perfectly with his delivery and the beats he chooses for himself, so does “1Train” carve out a queer niche for itself on what is definitely a deeply strange album. Not everyone could deliver words as cheap as “A$AP, get like me/never met a mothafucka fresh like me” and have them sink so deep, and so this is both Rakim’s blessing and curse.

At the end of your listen, like me you’ll probably note that you can’t quote many of A$AP Rocky’s actual lyrics, and that’s fair, but the sonic presentation of the album is transfixing. Long.Live.A$AP is a very pretty thing lacking in lyrical depth, and that’s perfectly alright – so long as its intentional, or at least self-aware. There’s reason to believe this is the case. Throughout the album, up until “Phoenix”, Rocky is flagrantly hedonistic, even approaching nihilism in the name of materialism. It’s an aesthetic we’ve experienced before, but never over beats so isolating and eery. This isn’t music to feel good to, necessarily – it’s music that can evoke bleariness, disorientation and intense isolation. At times it can seem that Rocky exists in a closed universe, parallel to our own, where this sort of rampant, hollow materialism is recognized for what it is. Only production of a high calibre can draw this sort of gut reaction out of lyricism as straightforward as Rocky’s – and thankfully, he has it. And only a wink and nod from the man himself can lock this sort of presentation into place – and thankfully he has that too, on the final two tracks: the strange and show-stopping “Pheonix”, and the successfully autobiographical “Suddenly”, which ranks both technically and lyrically as his finest track yet. Quoting the tracks here won’t prove anything – go listen and see. Long.Live.A$AP’s odd, personal third act begins very, very late, but there’s no denying that it arrives.

So is A$AP Rocky more than that a tour guide and an event planner? Well, yes and no. The man with the 3 million dollar dreads still isn’t an amazing rapper, at least not on an album scale, and his subject matter isn’t going to surprise you. What will impress, and what surprised me, was the care with which Long.Live.A$AP’s architecture has been constructed. Unlike Live.Love.A$AP, this one’s an album, and the stakes have been raised accordingly. By turns fresh, surprising, sleepy and even hilarious, repeated listens turn Long.Live.A$AP into a pleasant surprise for 2013, and an extremely strong start for hip-hop’s most mainstream angle. Too repetitive to be perfect, and lyrically non-stimulating enough to avoid becoming a classic, A$AP Rocky has nevertheless dropped a second impressive album worthy of his hype, and that’s much more than can be said of many of his predecessors.


Published right here, January 2013. It’s good to be back. 

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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”


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.

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