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"Government Plates"

7/10
Death Grips – Government Plates
18 November 2013, 11:30 Written by Sam Kriss
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On Wednesday, Death Grips’ new album was dropped without warning on the internet, and according to its ID3 tags, Government Plates is a rock & roll album. This isn’t entirely untrue. The first track borrows its title (“You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it’s your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat”) from Bob Dylan’s stomping 12-bar blues anthem; MC Ride’s lyrics have little in common with hip-hop’s traditional raconteurie and bluster, hovering instead somewhere between poetic Imagism and shouting grindcore frenzy. At the same time there’s something quite rock & roll about the music itself, its propulsive fury recalling the abrasive energy of rock before Elvis arrived to round off the edges.

It’s not just the noise that makes Government Plates such a joyfully unwelcoming listen, although there’s still plenty of noise. “Pillbox hat” sets the tone with a grinding two-note riff in heavy synths as slow and shattering as the grinding of tectonic plates; elsewhere there are flashes of screeching static, bass that almost seems to ooze underfoot, and lead patterns that sound like the dying scream of an old GameBoy as it’s put through a trash compactor. It’s mostly entirely atonal, hisses and stabs; or else a manic parody of tune. MC Ride’s offbeat vocals are as harsh and foreign as the music itself, pitch-shifted and distorted into electronic intelligibility. There’s a lot less of a straightforward lyrical delivery here than in previous releases; his voice is sampled in loops that sometimes form more of a consistent percussive structure than Zach Hill’s clattering drums. All this noise is powerful, but what really gives Government Plates its effect is the sheer lurching uneasiness of it all.

Hip-hop’s been having something of a love affair with electronic music of late, but while this generally means rappers dropping casual references to molly and inviting EDM producers to dick around with a few tracks on their albums, Death Grips seem far more interested in the less neon-bright corners of dance music history. Some of the skittering beats and 808 sounds reference Chicago footwork, at other times the synth bloops sound like something from the first Vex’d album. In “I’m Overflow” a squelching trance beat is suddenly quelled by a rewind and chanted, rhythmic vocals before breaking out again in thudding drums and jarring electronic noises. It doesn’t sound exactly like jungle, but it does have a lot of the same feeling: the heart-pounding, queasy feeling you get at a drum & bass night after swallowing a few too many dodgy pills, surrounded by blurry strangers and not entirely sure if you’re enjoying yourself or just having a panic attack. Something similar happens on “Big House”, with an overblown techno intro giving way to tense minimalism: throbbing bass, haphazard drums, and Ride’s hauntingly schizophrenic hook – “Are they creeping under my skin, are they creeping under my skin?” With “Birds” an initially melodic guitar sample shifts further out of tune with every repetition. It’s nausea-inducing – but, after a few listens, really quite good.

The production on Government Plates could be compared to some of the similarly abstract stuff on (the admittedly Death Grips-indebted) Yeezus, but if Death Grips have an analogue in the (slightly) more conventional rap world it might be Danny Brown. When Danny talks about getting fucked up, he means getting fucked up – drug use isn’t so much conspicuous consumption as deliberate and gleeful self-destruction. There’s something similar at work here; Ride’s descriptions of paranoia sound more like a manifesto than a complaint, an advocacy for insanity. Just as the inaccessibility of the music challenges us to enjoy it, so Ride executes a crypto-Lacanian manoeuvre, daring us to enjoy our own madness. At the same time his scattered syntax and breathless delivery render everything somehow pervasive and uncentred. Imagery of a violent and sexual (and violently sexual) nature abounds, but none of it seems to really come from anywhere in particular. There are strange echoes of Georges Bataille – the sea continually jerks off, the sun is an anus, ‘come come fuck apart.’

Death Grips are at their best when they’re just being plain weird. Some of the attempts to fully reproduce various types of dance music fall a little flat – it’s a passable imitation, but the kind of people who like psytrance might not have much time for most of Government Plates. It’s far from easy, but the same time there are some real triumphs. The six-minute epic of a final track, “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)”, stands out here. The thunder and fury is broken up by an elegaic soundscape that sounds like Brian Eno on a heavy dose of anticholinergics. Ride’s percussive vocals are as furious as ever, but they’re subsumed into the pattern of droning synths and rolling bursts of static; it has a sense of vastness and melancholy, the sound of waves breaking against an empty shore a thousand years after the end of the world.

Download Government Plates for free here.

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