Album Review: Death Grips—“The Powers That B”

By Adam Piotrowicz

I’m going to begin by disclosing a very important bias: Death Grips is probably my favourite band, and have probably very well been since sometime around 2012. As a longtime fan of making and listening to music deemed by many to be “abrasive” or “noise”, my love for the band had developed naturally rapidly since my friend first played me “Blood Creepin,” the closing track off their 2011 mixtape, Exmilitary, while I was driving around in my mom’s minivan. I immediately reacted with excitement – having already been a fan of Zach Hill’s drumming in his other projects, the alien, percussive, and electronic assault of Exmilitary felt right at home with my tastes. The mixtape’s unique sound instantly felt like the missing link that I had not yet stumbled upon in my adolescent explorations of music. Their 2012 albums, namely The Money Store and NO LOVE DEEP WEB, solidified my then-nascent fandom of Death Grips into an unhinged obsession.

Album art for Niggas on the Moon

Album art for Niggas on the Moon

The major label controversy that accompanied the release of NO LOVE DEEP WEB – namely, when Death Grips violated the terms of their still-freshly signed record contract with Epic, leaking the album from a hotel room at the Chateau Fairmont, following which they leaked screenshots of Epic’s legal emails to Death Grips via their social media accounts, spending the remainder of the contract money on things of shadowy proportions – is easily the greatest act of major-league punk rock debauchery in recent memory. The album’s cover, a reported picture of Hill’s penis, atply drove their point home; the image’s meaning is summarized best by frontman Stefan Burnett, “If you look at that and all you see is a dick, I don’t really have anything to say, pretty much.” The gleeful antagonism that I saw in virtually everything that Death Grips did up until that point, rendered me a cultish devotee by the release of their excellent 2013 LP Government Plates. To this day, I find it difficult to not support everything Death Grips, and find intense amusement in both their music and trickery.

I can think of few current artists that has simultaneously managed to amaze, shock, frustrate, anger, frighten and ultimately polarize audiences to the degree that Death Grips has thus far in their career, let alone artists signed to major labels. On their split from Epic, Hill has stated that, “[Epic weren’t] futurists, so it’s like the old school…as an artist, [you’re able] to really streamline it and straight connect…[it’s] hard not to just want to roll with the future.” For a band that caused such a massive stir in critical opinions, being named as SPIN’s “Artist of the Year” in 2012 and having entire channels devoted to their study on internet gateways like Reddit and 4chan, Death Grips have remained blissfully ignorant off all external interferences, remaining as ferociously committed to their craft as they have ever been. Such uncompromising artistic devotion is both refreshing and exciting, and it is difficult not to at least admire such a genuinely fierce emphasis on independence.

Album art for Jenny Death

Album art for Jenny Death

Listening to a Death Grips album has never been a peaceful nor serene experience, taking the listener on a frantic sensory and emotional trip that leaves them exhausted. The group’s latest release, completely titled The Powers That B, is arguably the bipolar pinnacle of Death Grips’ evolution to date, a continuation of the alien punk-rap they have been gradually disintegrating since the release of Exmilitary. As such, both of Powers’ distinct halves reference the band’s roots but constantly into uncharted territory. The first disc, Niggas on the Moon, focuses on layered and manipulated samples of Icelandic singer Björk, recorded on an electronic drum set by Zach Hill. The album itself is an abstract collage of voice, electronic percussion and manic sampling – intensely rewarding, but no doubt their most challenging and complex release to date.

Jenny Death, the second disc, sees them doing a stylistic full circle, blatantly embracing the lineage of punk through the use of live guitar, drums and keyboards, synthesizing and corroding them in that special Death Grips way. While Niggas on the Moon assaults you with hyper-abstraction, Jenny Death is aggressive in a completely opposite way, stripping Death Grips down to their essential hardcore form, bearing true to Zach Hill’s longtime mission statement of creating music that embraced what he calls “future-primitivism.” Listening to both halves in order proves to be an even more interesting experience, bringing out the diverse clash in sound that I believe makes The Powers That B the most expansive and diverse-sounding Death Grips album to date.

In a contemporary music culture seemingly dominated by the hegemonic powers of a Pitchfork “Best New Music” rating, it feels good to see a band that honestly doesn’t give a shit about anything besides the fruit of their own creative energies. By remaining unwavering in their artistic objectives, Death Grips have not only managed to create music, but art that is universally telling, accurately depicting the realities of living in the state of constant paranoia and over-stimulation that widely characterizes today’s society. Their music is most certainly not pleasant, but neither is the living in an age of constant surveillance and informational connectivity. Death Grips serves as an intense, chaotic, and brutally honest reminder of these realities. Whether or not you end up enjoying The Powers That B is completely arbitrary – by submitting yourself to it, you’re already proving their point. (Harvest)

Listen: “I Break Mirrors with My Face in the United States”

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