Joey Hill

There isn’t an act like Death Grips in the whole of contemporary music.

The California-based rap group Death Grips  seemingly came out of nowhere in 2011 with their initial mixtape “Exmilitary,” and has since then built a reputation as a entity without compromise. Throughout their career the group has made itsnihilistic view of their record labels, their image, and even their own fans exceedingly clear with many no-shows at scheduled performances as well as the group’s surprise breakup last year, which they announced by scrawling a few words on a napkin and posting a photo of it to Facebook.

“Exmilitary” is ruthlessly harsh and uses a combination between echoing guitars and cold drum machines to make the album seem to roll and creep like a fever dream. The music shifts from a hauntingly symphonic cataclysm of noise in tracks like“Beware” to an unfeeling, lurching kind of rhythm in songs like “Guillotine.” These qualities combine to make “Exmilitary” the flaming Doc Martin hurled through the window of conventional underground hip hop.

2012 brought on a change in direction for the group with “The Money Store,” an album invoking a slightly more conventional underground hip hop style with dark, lo-fidelity electronic beats. While Death Grips didn’t change the extreme intensity of its original aesthetic, “The Money Store” is seen by many as the most accessible of their albums. In the same year the group self-released “No Love Deep Web,” another full-length album. This created a rift between Death Grips and its label Epic Records due to the fact that the self-release was a year before the label’s preferred release date. The group was consequently dropped from the label. Death Grips would only release two more albums, “Government Plates” and “The Powers That B” before suddenly disbanding in 2014.

Due to this aforementioned disbandment, it was a surprise to many when Death Grips suddenly released an instrumental album called “Fashion Week” last week. This unsuspected reunion solidifies the fact that the musicians involved simply do whatever they want and always keep their fans guessing. At first listen the album is harsh and foreboding, beginning with dark synthesized electronica rising and breaking into aggressive beats. “Fashion Week” has many high points on its own, but the more time is spent listening to it the more it appears to be full of one too many nods to past works. The songs seem to blend the styles of both “Exmilitary” and “The Money Store.”

One of the striking aspects of the album is its clever track list. All of the songs are titled “Runway” followed by various letters. In order, the various letters spell out “JENNY DEATH WHEN,” which was a popular statement made online by fans after Death Grips confirmed its last album “The Powers That B” to be a two part album with the second part entitled “Jenny Death.” The track list message has spawned rumors that “Jenny Death” will be released soon, and some have theorized that the title “Fashion Week” is a clue about the release date. However, with Death Grips it is impossible to tell what will happen.

Musically, “Fashion Week” is very stripped down, at times consisting only of synthesizer and drum kit sounds. Many of the tracks put listeners in mind of the glitch-core genre. Synth hits and drum crashes repeat and stutter, changing tempo intermittently. It’s these elements that give the album a distinct edge. It’s as if “Fashion Week” is more like a collection sound clips from 1980s public access television, except the TV’s speakers are on fire and slowly distorting the soundsas it melts.

The song “Runway N” uses a number of different clips, the most notable being a cheery clip of an electric organ that plays on loop with a loud drum beat in the background. The following song, also entitled  “Runway N,” has a distinctly more grungy sound that’s reminiscent of a hardcore punk bar track. On top of a rapid drum beat Death Grips layers a heavily distorted guitar riff that sounds like it was recorded on magnetic tape and then given massive amounts of radiation, creating a true alternative rock nightmare.

Altogether “Fashion Week” is an impressive instrumental venture, but it seems incomplete without lyrics given what Death Grips has done in the past. While the group’s signature style holds true in the glitchy soundscapes and electro grunge feel of the album, the idea that it was just an assembled handful of tracks released to remain relevant until “Jenny Death” drops is an understandable one. However, this viewpoint is far from fair. Without lyrics, Death Grips’ music is colder and more vicious, but it still works well – it’s the aural equivalent of an asylum after the patients have left and all that remains is a brooding, frigid concrete building.