November 20, 2013

Test Spins: Death Grips, Government Plates

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Listening to the latest Death Grips release is a little bit like chatting with a homeless scizophrenic having a panic attack in a gun factory: Try as you might to appeal to reason, to beg for calm, or to understand just what it is he’s saying, your efforts are futile. After a few minutes of this, you might start to question your sanity. The scariest part, though, is the feeling that it just might make some sense.

Don’t get it? You’re not supposed to. The group, a trio out of Sacramento, California, is purposely evasive. It seems its M.O. is to disorient, to confuse, to render everything it touches meaningless. This task is a nihilistic one. In theory, it has some precedent in the punk music of the past, but in reality, there is not much music out there that even approaches this level of insanity — Kanye’s Yeezus, while a convenient mainstream comparison, isn’t really even in the same ballpark. As many critics have pointed out, Death Grips has little precedent. In fact, the whole exercise of criticism seems pointless with much of their music — and that makes it all the more compelling.

Government Plates opens to the kind of hysteria we’ve come to expect from Death Grips. The crash of breaking glass gives way to the drone of an airway siren and the incomprehensible screams of frontman MC Ride. The track, “You Might Think He Loves You For Your Money …” is pure dread — and makes “Black Skinhead” look like “My Heart Will Go On.”

At certain moments, as Ride’s vague mutterings fade out, the album starts to approach catchiness, as when Zach Hill’s echoing, ethereal beats meet the satisfying screech of a well-placed synth on “Anne Bonny.” For a moment, a stray listener might think this is a particularly violent Gucci Mane deep cut. But then, Ride comes back as angry as ever, yelling “FUCK, KILL, STEAL” as if preaching to a congregation of sadists.

The entire first half of the album continues much in this same vein, and as a casual follower of Death Grips (I’ll admit I had not listened for quite a while … one’s ears can only take so much) it’s a bit overwhelming. Right before its midpoint, however, there is finally a raucous, dissonant payoff: “Birds.” The track, released earlier in the year as single, throws together samples of foreign and near-satanic voices with the whine of a synth before cutting to the almost pretty twang of a haunted-house harpsichord. Against all odds — and despite the band’s best efforts — the track is actually catchy. As with many of the tracks that followed, it is the kind of no-fucks-given jam that has made Death Grips a band worth watching.

Ultimately, whether or not you like this album might be more a question of philosophy than music taste. As for me, my head may be nodding “no,” but at least it’s nodding to the beat.