Zach Hill – Astrological Straits

Zach Hill, one of the most prolific and varied modern drummers, has been involved with bands ranging from Hella, Nervous Cop and more,  to collaborations with Rob Crow and even left-field electronic artist Prefuse 73 on their combined Diamond Watch Wrists project.  In 2008 he finally unleashed his own solo debut – and to the surprise of many, it’s much more than the masturbatory percussion fetish expected when drummers go solo.  Instead we’ve got a progressive psychedelic mind-warp of a journey from fractured hard trance grooves to massive Black Sabbath-style epics to splintery noise jams, all wrapped up in a free-jazz melange that keeps shifting underfoot, subverting expectations as the ride moves along.

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Starting with what sounds like an air raid siren filtered through a vocoder, Astrological Straits is forthcoming about the pressurized sonic onslaught being unleashed.  Despite avoiding the obvious perceived pitfalls about a percussionist’s album, the skins are beat mercilessly right out of the gate:  pummeling, shredding, and outright assaulting his set is what the man’s become known for, and he doesn’t disappoint.  The surprising element is the very arrangements themselves – sometimes moving in expectedly grandiose directions, sometimes twisting into a weird techno-jazz-crunch where the drums submit to the gathering maelstrom and become one with the mix.

Speaking of that mix:  for this album Hill enlisted the help of Tyler Pope (!!! and LCD Soundsystem), Marnie Stern, No Age, his own Hella bandmates, Les Claypool and many more interesting players.  This may give a hint as to the breadth and scope of the album, but certainly not its direction.  Growing from a jumbled, crushing stop-start tentative seed to Boredoms-inspired tribal hypno-grooves, through noise-pop freak-outs, then straight off the planet into a prog-funk-metal-fusion jam that ends the album over 9 breathless minutes.  It’s this restless enthusiasm for change and the ebb and flow of energy which clearly displays Mr. Hill’s jazz underpinnings.  He may be oft compared with high energy percussionists like Brian Chippendale of Lightning Bolt but his head (and prodigious ability) lies in another realm entirely.  This is so much more than impressive musicianship; it’s a new world being ripped open by an intellectually primal beat explorer.  I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself:

Q: What’s in the future for you? Where are you headed?

A: I want to change the world of my instrument in a large way.  I want to get to the highest place with my instrument that I can possibly get and change the instrument for the better.  I want to innovate.  That ‘s what I set out to do and that’s what I’m going to do, whether anybody’s paying attention or not.”

Modern Drummer, August 2006

[get your hands on this overlooked gem at boomkat, insound, and of course amazon]

Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein

2001: a Hip Hop OdysseyCannibal Ox dropped one of the greatest albums in recent history and then promptly vanished.  It’s possible the group was simply too incredible to exist; the universe self-corrected, erasing the extraordinary anomaly.  It’s a bit of a shame, but we have no place to complain when we’re blessed with this singular document of gravitationally scaled hip hop ferocity.

The Cold Vein is that rarest of creatures: an album that scales incredible heights both lyrically and instrumentally, stimulating all musical pleasure centers at once.  Vocal interplay between Vast Aire and Vordul Mega is a perfect dance between partners with different strengths, complimenting each others’ style every step of the way.  Throughout the record, they’re wrestling for control of the shambling, electro-crunch futuristic monster that is El-P‘s monumental production.  This lumbering beast rears its multifaceted head into the atmosphere via the first track’s sci-fi laser synthesizers and keeps pushing through uncharted territory with every minute consumed.  Feeling at times crunchy and nasty as the deepest early RZA work, a la Liquid Swords, the record’s more of a Transformer, flipping expectations and subverting comfort.  The surfaces constantly shift below Vast & Vordul’s feet, erupting in action-funk horn blasts, spacey organ bursts, complex breakdowns where the whole spectacle threatens to break loose and fly apart..  then it’s reigned in by these dueling aural lion tamers.  Combining cutting insight with surrealist connective tissue, the vocals flaunt every previously held rap paradigm.

Cutting through near-scatalogical Kool Keith-tinted non sequiturs, and the dystopian settings of Deltron 3030 (or Can Ox forebears Company Flow), are the surprisingly confessional moments embedded throughout – showcased in particular by the psychological turmoil of The F-Word and Stress Rap.  The one lyrical preoccupation easily identified is the emphasis on power, ambition, loss, survival, and pre-apocalyptic tension.  While not original in any conventional sense, it’s the way these themes are spun through nerd-genre sensibilities that lends weight and intrinsic appeal.  Like the best comic book and science fiction flicks, all the fireworks and metaphysical effects are merely tools aiding in the comprehension of universal truth and personal revelation.

I ain’t dealin’ with no minimum wage, I’d rather construct rhymes on a minimal page.”  This album is for dreamers and thinkers, unsatisfied with the state of the world, angry about the machinations of politics and culture, the stifling of creativity, the snuffed out aspirations.  It’s fuel for those striving, hoping, and fighting for a better place – even if it’s mental space.  Real Earth follows, after all.

[get your hands on this at CD Universe, with their list of relevant & worthy albums, or amazon of course]