More like Death Rips
by Jericho Cerrona
Death Grips don't do half-measures. Everything is seemingly a ploy, a PR stunt, a transgressive statement of purpose, a series of duck and cover jabs at our insatiable naiveté through social media. Canceled shows, penis album covers, anti-corporate fuck offs to major label money, breaking up and then getting back together; Death Grips have undoubtably concocted a methodology based on subverting expectations. However, what happens when there's no longer anything left to subvert, when all of the supposed "fans" have jumped ship, and when the constant torrent of satirical knife twists have dulled with age? Basically, we are now in a time, four years removed from the group's seminal debut Ex-Military, where it's reasonable to assume that no one really cares what Death Grips are up to and whether or not they will continue making atonal racket. What cannot be denied, though, based on the second disc of the album The Powers That Be (following last year's Niggas on the Moon), is that the Sacramento, CA trio absolutely don't give a fuck about what anyone thinks.
The biggest question that arose from the 8-track, 31-minute blast of chaos that was Niggas on the Moon was whether or not Death Grips had any new sonic tricks up their sleeves. While that first part of The Powers That Be was a descent into atonality without a contextual net, Jenny Death sounds like a completely different beast altogether; favoring a heavy use of guitars, psychedelic rock instrumentation, and some of the outfit's most aggressive songs to date. This may seem strange, given that both records are supposed to be a cohesive whole, but this being Death Grips, it comes as little surprise just how divergent they sound. Niggas on the Moon felt like a natural progression of 2013's Government Plates, which kept vocalist Stefan Burnett (aka MC Ride) on the periphery while highlighting Andy Morin's (aka Flatlander) spastic production. It was a jittery, mostly electronic album; full of fractured beats, clipped samples, and attention to an overall nightmarish auditory experience that in many ways formed the basis for their surprise instrumental album Fashion Week, which dropped earlier this year. Though rumors spread over the web that Jenny Death would in fact never materialize due to Death Grip's supposed break up, there was little indication that this was actually the case. With all of the band's calculated marketing stunts; from purposefully leaking their albums online for free, to making a big deal about working with Bjork on Niggas on the Moon only to use her vocals as little more than a deranged drum machine, did anyone really take such statements seriously? Conversely, though they've announced a massive world tour in support of The Powers That Be, they could just as easily cancel the whole thing, seeing as the group's shape-shifting identity is beholden to whatever impulses they may have at the moment.
As for the actual album at hand, Jenny Death is the sound of Death Grips reminding everyone why they matter. For instance, did anyone expect epic rock bombast and arena-level guitar riffs from a group formally priding themselves on glitchy IDM-influenced hip-hop? Truthfully, Death Grips have never been that easy to categorize, and Jenny Death is quite possibly their most diverse offering yet; taking their punk rock ethos into the realms of the actual songwriting while still maintaining their more electronic, beat-heavy aesthetic. Opener "I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States" announces the group's intentions right out of the gate; with swirling digital overload and a skittering beat layered over Ride's repeated refrain I don't care about real life. It's a bludgeoning opening salvo, and one that makes it clear that the avant-garde noodling found throughout Niggas on the Moon will take a back seat to punk violence, both sonically and structurally. Meanwhile, "Turned Off" features a detuned guitar intro, Zach Hill's (aka the human drum machine) intricate kit work, and a sludge-metal central riff that absolutely rules. Ride sounds positively energized here; yelling, howling, and spitting ear-splitting rhymes with a reckless abandon not heard since the days of 2012's monolithic masterwork The Money Store. Meanwhile, "Why A Bitch Gotta Lie" takes the garbled electronics of Government Plates and adds in coiling metal riffs and vocoder vocal effects, which results in what sounds like a demonic Kraftwerk dance track. There's even a winking attempt at booty-shaking in the form of "Pss Pss", in which Ride coos and whispers like a sexualized lothario over a mid-tempo, minimal club beat. It's a hilarious offering; a twerk-influenced bit of sleaze meant to either satirize this kind of thing or represent it with open arms, depending on one's viewpoint.
The most impressive aspect of Jenny Death is how the band have taken progressive steps to add new elements to their sound. One of the natural drawbacks of having such a signature sonic template is the proverbial glass ceiling effect of "once you've heard one Death Grips song, you've heard them all". This kind of thinking may be reductive, but it's also organic and ultimately inevitable. Death Grips literally came out of nowhere a few years ago and took the industry by storm; operating on their own terms and using the internet-savvy culture to their supreme advantage. Without the novelty factor, Death Grips could very well have fallen into obscurity, or worse yet, adopted the well-worn punchline of "one-trick pony". Despite the odds, the outfit have persevered by being unequivocally true to themselves and consistently making challenging music. One of the things that often gets lost in the discussion is just how adept Death Grips are as songwriters, and Jenny Death is further proof that the music is what matters. Songs like the stoner rock/hip-hop hybrid "Dead Alive" and the epic Led Zeppelin-esque "Centuries of Damn" are surprising insofar as they present us with the idea of Death Grips playing to massive arena crowds. Of course, these two tracks are much too cacophonous and experimental to play with the mainstream crowd, but there's still something thrilling in hearing them swing for the fences using slightly different tools in their arsenal.
Perhaps the most telling example of maturity arrives with "On GP", a song combining psych and shoegaze with Ride's deeply personal lyrics detailing his thoughts on suicide. The lines I'd be a liar if I sat here claiming I'd exit in a minute/ But I can't say I wouldn't, I have my limits aren't shocking in the sense of their universality, but do come as a surprise given Ride's normally enigmatic presence. Given to hiding behind clever turns of phrase and faux-braggadocio sneering, Ride seems much more willing to bear his soul here, although it's still questionable whether or not the suicidal narrator is simply an alter ego rather than a genuine expression of the man's inner psyche. Either way, it's a refreshing rebuttal to those who claim Death Grips are only interested in pure nihilism. Additionally, the album's last track "Death Grips 2.0" might signal the direction the group will move towards, or it may very well be just another wrinkle to tease and titillate. The song is an instrumental bit of hyperactive noise; like Aphex Twin filtered through an acid flashback, and could exist merely as a reminder that Death Grips aren't going anywhere. Whatever the case, Jenny Death is a fitting second half to The Powers That Be, wholly successful at propagating the notion that Death Grips are very much in control of their own legacy; hiccups, half-starts, and deep web posturing notwithstanding.