It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an album that frightened me. There were a few along the way that really shocked me out of my musical haze, but over the past years everything has been listenable, understandable. Nothing could touch the dread I felt when I first put Korn – Life Is Peachy into the CD player on Christmas morning and heard Jon Davis growling his way through Twist. I was twelve years old, I was scared as fuck and I loved every second of it.
That was followed by Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral, which scared me for two reasons: 1) Heresy, along with the lyrics, “God is dead, and no one cares, if there is a hell I’ll see you there,” and 2) Closer (for obvious reasons). Being raised as a little pisswilly Catholic; I was convinced that just listening to those lyrics would send me straight to hell. I remember as a child being incredibly frightened that if I even thought, “I’m taking a vow of silence,” I would never be able to speak again, for fear of going straight to hell – do not pass the Pearly Necklace Gates, do not collect 200 bucks and do not high five Jesus on top of a cloud while eating canned pineapple (another strange idea I had as a child).
This was followed by Marilyn Manson, Antichrist Superstar – where I tried to avoid looking at the pentagrams and the goat’s head tattoo he had on his arm. But I loved every second of that too. I loved the imagery, and I loved what he stood for. I came to learn in later years that his whole game was to make himself the most hated person in America, and prior to 9/11 that was maybe easier than we thought.
But, and this is a big but, in the last few years I’ve delved into ear-melting metal and disgusting, misogynistic, morbid rap and nothing scared me. Nothing made me sit up and go: Fuck me Belindas, this is something new. This is something vital. This is something you can listen to at full blast while you drive your fucking car into a wall at 200 km/h.
And Death Grips is the answer to my prayers. Not that they mean anything.
It builds on the fear engendered by early Hip Hop, from groups like NWA and Public Enemy, but sounds nothing like either group. It’s music to make your white-ass parents’ cup and saucer clatter as they make the sign of the cross in front of their fraying cardigans. It’s a band name to write on your Space Case or scrawl on the neighbour’s wall. Death Grips put forward a new, aggressive, paranoid urban music. I’m inclined to say they took on the belt of skulls from early rap, tying the rope roughly around their emaciated waists, but what they’ve made is entirely their own. They sound like what Hip Hop should have become, an evil beast born out of despair and misery, here to spread negativity like a virus – not pour expensive champagne on the ground and boast about diamonds and cars.
The beats are jittery and paranoid, the lyrics are cut up beyond recognition, the bass is brutal; lurking in a darkened doorway like a drunk uncle. It’s not dance music. It’s not car music. It’s not noise music. It’s not rock music. It’s Death Grips music. Their live show is by all accounts intense (theirs was the only gig at Coachella where the crowd broke out in fights), and honestly I wouldn’t know how to respond if I saw them live. Do you dance, do you cry or do you just punch the person next to you in the face because you were just shown the end of the world?
The only way I can describe the music is: It feels the same as The Downward Spiral felt, but it sounds nothing like it. The screamed and distorted vocals are at once meaningful and almost nonsensical. Stories of media overexposure and the horrors we see on TV every day meet with lyrics that are cut up and repeated so many times they mean nothing.
And as you listen to more, you get the feeling that for Death Grips, it’s not really about the music. The individual notes and the vocals and the effects are all means to an end. The end being the end of everything. Where other rap music comes in with swagger, a love for money, good times and loose women – this is just an unassailable monolith of nihilistic non-feeling. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s just unbelievably bleak, and I love every second of it.
This is the first thing I’ve heard in years that pushed me out of my comfort zone. It’s not easy-listening, but it’s catchy in it’s own way. It’s futuristic pop-music being made in a concrete basement as the world rebuilds after a nuclear holocaust, it’s the last record to be played while the last human alive drinks the Kool-Aid.
It’s the soundtrack to the end of the world.
Image via Pigeons and Planes