Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Top 13 Death Grips Songs

I hate having to write this.
Just last month I was toasting Death Grips for the blitzkrieg of n***** on the moon, writing "Their ‘agony is priceless’ and will keep people coming back as long as they're standing upright." Now I'm writing my own personal eulogy for the experimental rap trio because they're no longer standing on two feet. When news came last Wednesday that they'd broken up, on a napkin no less, I found myself hoping it was a cruel joke; a calculated move of artistic agitation. They'd done it before. They released No Love Deep Web, their second album of 2012, without telling their label Epic. Last year they intentionally no-showed at a string of shows, effectively making their lack of a performance a performance. And while the merit of all those moves has been intensely scrutinized and endlessly debated, Death Grips never batted an eye. Instead of retreating MC Ride, drummer Zach Hill, and producer Andy Morin dug their feet in further and raised their middle fingers higher. They gave the decidedly non-rap album, Government Plates, a surprise release in 2013 and continued the tradition with n***** on the moon last month. Instead of embarking on a potentially game-changing tour with Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, they called it quits. Which makes perfect sense for a band that so often avoided the logical move. Why be welcoming when suffocation has always been your modus operandi? While I'll be disappointed if I never hear MC Ride scream over a bed of shifting electronics again, I'll survive. They left us plenty of music to laugh with, to think to, and yell over.

It's enough music to merit a countdown. "Top 13 Death Grips Songs" may seem like a strange number to arrive at, but when you consider their first three albums all had 13 tracks it’s the only number to have. Death Grips leave behind five very good to great albums and all of them have songs that appear on this list. Some like Exmilitary and The Money Store yielded more tunes, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're better albums. Government Plates stands as my favorite Death Grips album, but its exacting cohesion doesn't translate as well to greatest hits list making. Nor does n***** on the moon because it's entirely too new. And n***** on the moon's companion piece, jenny death, may feature more stellar efforts from the band. But none of us will know that until it's released out of nowhere in the fall. Once it comes out through Third Worlds Death Grips will officially be done. They'll be pondered for long after that though. Death Grips are arguably the closest my generation has come to seeing a punk band in the classic sense. Like the similarly combustible Sex Pistols, their public persona never strayed from their musical aesthetic. And with all that said, let's take a look at their uniform output.

13. "Anne Bonny"- Government Plates (2013)

The closest Death Grips ever came to "lush" is Government Plates' second track "Anne Bonny." Andy Morin's synthesizer warmly oscillates under MC Ride's exasperated stutter. Much of the "f***ing mess" Ride's making can't be seen in the song's initial 50 seconds because of the sleep Morin lulls you into. Then like a vengeful hypnotist, he and Hill violently snap the listener awake with Decepticon death gurgles and static-laden drum machines. Their move essentially comes on a dare; Ride prodding them "play some f***in music b****." Listeners aren't the only ones who have to follow Ride's psychotic rules. On "Anne Bonny" Morin and Hill are forced to survive his indulgent supremacy and they do so by adapting.

12. "Deep Web"- No Love Deep Web (2012)

"Don't make me take my face off!" MC Ride threatens in "Deep Web." While Andy Morin's synthesizer flickers like a light-bulb in the decrepit hall of a horror movie, Ride's inside one of the decayed units fearful he’ll be found out. Somehow on Death Grips' third LP Ride is just now worrying about seeming crazy. "Call me crazy but somehow my line's been tapped" he insists in the ferociously rippling hook. He's desperate for any distraction from his paranoia, going so far as to suggest "I'm the coat hanger in your man's vagina." Though the imagery of the line is troubling, it doesn't distract one bit. Ride's trapped in a glass house and the whole world is watching.

11. "@Deathgripz"- Adult Swim Singles Program (2012)

Traditionally a song named for the performing band is meant to properly introduce them to an audience. "Black Sabbath," "Green Day," "They Might Be Giants," "Belle & Sebastian" all scream "MISSION STATEMENT." Carefully crafted, they're meant for maximum impact. If you never heard another effort from them, you'd have a rough understanding of what they were about.

Not so with "@DeathGripz." The pitch shifting vocal samples are far too coherent for a Death Grips affair. Zach Hill's drums come across as unusually crisp. Ride seems to be on his best behavior, never quite letting go of the roar he's known for. He's unflappably calm; so much so he admits to being "bored." "Can I break it down?" he repeatedly asks with the politeness of a 50s sitcom character. Still there's a feeling he could lose it, which the choppy editing makes abundantly clear. Ride is a wolf in sheep's clothing; ready to pounce at a moment's notice.

10. "Have A Sad C**"- n***** on the moon (2014)

Part of Death Grips’ enduring lyrical legacy, aside from their political agitation, is their demystification of sex. In "I Want I need it" there's no deep kissing or longing embraces, just "quick f***in" inspired by carnal desires. Coitus is proven to be a competition in "B**** Please" and whoever is "trashiest" wins out according to MC Ride. In his eyes sex is primal; "short, nasty, and brutish" as Thomas Hobbes would say. It's meant to be shown with bits of flab, stray hairs, and awkward exchanges.

Few songs in their catalog have as flaccid a depiction of sex as the Björk manipulating "Have a Sad C**." In the middle of a vocal loop, Ride's standing around complaining "nothing turn feels good." The voice of Megatron on PCP asks "is this instant an awful end?" "Have A Sad C**"'s title spells it out perfectly; there's no jubilation after climax. All you're left with is disappointment and despondency. And rather than shoo away the nagging gloom, Morin and Hill beckon it with their constant chatting and MPC mashing. If Death Grips' output is "art" then "Have a Sad C**" is the equivalent of Gustave Courbet's frank 1866 depiction of the vagina in "The Origin of the World." Both exist to make you realize the glorification of the human body is absurd. 

9. "No Love"- No Love Deep Web (2012)

Throughout the luridly dichromatic video for "No Love" the phrase "1000% I used to give a f***" repeatedly pops up. Anyone paying attention to the unholy racket Death Grips had been raising since the beginning would've known that, so why emphasize the point? What good is there in belaboring what amounts to common knowledge? Why waste precious video space?

Because on the spectrum of having "f*** to give" "No Love" is deep in the negatives. It's comical trying to imagine Epic marketing something so callous. Hill's drumming is cruelly industrialized. Morin's bass and synthesizer swarm like a fleet of scrambled drones on a bombing run. What's the selling point then? MC Ride's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer performance? I'm sure the general public would love hearing how someone "Slit them choke, flip them boat, Dead b**** float, swollen corpse. At one point he bellows "I fell down a spiral staircase to hell" and with the distanced strain in his voice that sounds plausible. Listening to "No Love"'s five minutes of agony, you start to think maybe it's a good thing Death Grips got themselves dropped by self-releasing No Love Deep Web. No amount of corporate PR could've made this one commercially viable.

8. "Takyon (Death Yon)"- Exmilitary (2011)



For a group frequently tagged with the "rap" label, Death Grips didn't do much "rapping." At least not in the traditionalist "rappity rap" sense. MC Ride was more likely to shout than he was to "spit." 

Not on "Takyon (Death Yon)" though. Ride's doing "subatomic penetration, rapid fire through your skull," in a nod to the titular hypothetical particle. His delivery is a weathered rat-a-tat, like Migos if they expended all their energy trying to yell paint off the walls. And over a wailing Bad Brains sample he delivers some knotty lines about a gunfight where "cryonic haunted bullets hollow tipped with toxic waste" are sprayed everywhere. "Get with this or get left cause it's on!" he taunts at the verse's end. Rarely was the band ever this "on".

7. "Get Got"- The Money Store (2012)

One determinant for a truly great comedy record is how well the jokes hold up on repeat spins. Round 1 may inspire gut laughs but what about Round 2? Round 10? If you can get into the double digits and still have a genuine laugh, the record is something special. Louis C.K.'s Oh My God is a prime example in my life. No matter how many times I hear "Of Course, But Maybe" I hang onto his every word. Paul F. Tompkins’ crappy job tour de force Laboring Under Delusions is also within this purview. I know all about the poor schlub who calls crowns "king hats," but every time Tompkins introduces him his lack of vocabulary is astonishing.

The Money Store opener "Get Got" is like that for me, with laughing replaced by seething fury. Andy Morin's cascading waterfall of synthesizer is coming, I know it, and no matter what my mood is I want to spin violently about. It's gotten to the point that I know I can't listen to the track in public, muscle memory will kick in and I'll be doing my whirling dervish routine inside the local Chipotle. Despite all those listens, I'm not sure what produces such a volatile reaction. It could be caused by Zach Hill's warp speed drum beat. Maybe it's hearing the rug being ripped out from under Ride before he can begin rapping. Or I might be "losing' myself" in the electronic blitzkrieg like Ride is. Longevity is a good measure of artistic merit; inspiring debate is better.

6. "Spread Eagle Across the Block"- Exmilitary (2011)
(42 Ghosts remix artwork)

Not long after Link Wray's distorted instrumental single, "Rumble," hit American airwaves in April 1958 it was banned. As the apocryphal story goes, radio station managers worried the title's reference to fighting and Wray's shrill power chords would contribute to "juvenile delinquency." To stave off the mass hysteria "Rumble" would surely cause, managers let copies of the single gather dust. Rather than return to the sweater wearing placidity of Pat Boone though, teens flocked to the raucous song and drove it to Number Sixteen on the national pop charts. Proving that when you deny teens their fundamental right to rock, they'll rock harder in spite of you.

I can't imagine the parental paranoia "Rumble" sampler "Spread Eagle Across the Block" would've created in ‘58. When I try to picture the reaction buttoned-up suburbanites would have to MC Ride asserting "I f*** the music, I make it c**, I f*** the music with my serpent tongue," a smirk crawls across my face. Wray & His Ray Men may have accidentally incited rebellion; "Spread Eagle Across the Block" openly calls for an overthrow. "All I really need is some cool s*** to mob, like driving down the street to the beat of a bl***ob," Ride luridly puts it. As he speaks, you can hear apathy creeping out past the stuttering guitar and doubled-up clapping. He'd hurl a Molotov through a pristine storefront window if it meant not having to channel surf anymore. The biggest threat to American morality isn't rock music, its boredom.


5. "Whatever I want (f*** who's watching)"- Government Plates (2013)

"Whatever I want" is an understatement of Death Grips' actions in Government Plates closer "Whatever I want (f*** who's watching)." The sentiment isn't nearly strong enough. They're not simply doing whatever they want; the trio is embracing their respective ids with absolute love and affection. How else can you explain the song? MC Ride's talk of laying "my head in furnace," Zach Hill's reversed drums, and Andy Morin's garish synthesizer chords have to be driven by impulse. If not that means the band carefully labored over these seven minutes of hell. They had to hear every "f*** who's watching," every mechanical screech, and every foray into Clams Casino ambient boom-bap. Picturing the three of them crowding around a computer and hitting rewind on the track is enough to drive me crazy. Which is precisely what listening to "Whatever I want (f*** who's watching)" makes me: crazy. I go insane trying to hold on to anything whirling by me. Trying to lasso a tornado would be easier than wrangling a “hook” from here, and safer.


4. "Hacker"- The Money Store (2012)

One word conspicuously absent from the countdown so far is "humor." Like a lot of music labelled "punk" or "experimental" Death Grips' work is unfairly seen as "taking itself too seriously." I understand the criticism. In a revealing 2012 interview with Pitchfork, drummer Zach Hill claimed "the place where we're coming from sometimes transcends logic." I'm certain a detractor reading Hill's lofty assertion would immediately roll their eyes and mutter "pompous." It may well be pompous, but that doesn't mean Hill and the rest of Death Grips lack a funny bone. Proudly yelling "no hands" as you ride a megaton bomb (à la Dr. Strangelove) is deeply comical. So too is bragging your process is "kettle drum roll hard s***." Ditto for naming a song "Have a Sad C**." You may have to dig through scuzzy electronic beats and evil cackles, but there is hilarity.

Fortunately there's no laugh excavation needed for The Money Store's grand finale "Hacker." Rattling snare and disco synth pings are queued up as the camera lands on an image of MC Ride "goin back to Tangier with some Jordans and a spear." Hearing that juxtaposition of New World comfort and Old World "barbarism" my mind cycles through other hilarious pairings. Genghis Khan in a Brioni suit giving a toast after the siege of Beijing. Shaka Zulu rocking Ray Ban Wayfarers to keep the Sun out of his eyes during a campaign. Each of Ride's bon mots on the LCD Soundsystem meets M.I.A. tune inspires this kind of imagery. When he raps about killing everyone in "Linens-n-Things" I envision a white terrycloth towel from the store being used to clean up the crimson red blood. Ride promising "you'll catch a JPEG to the head" is the sort of threat Comic Book Guy would hurl. I'd keep going, but why should I get to have all the fun? "Hacker"'s a party where all are invited.

3. "Birds"- Government Plates (2013)

Nirvana had their final album, In Utero, receive a 20th anniversary reissue last year and it might not have been the best example in 2013 of the loud/quiet/loud style they perfected from the Pixies. That's not meant as a slam on In Utero in any way. 8 out of 10 times I'll happily take its jagged approach over Nevermind's pop sheen. It's just that Death Grips might've better utilized the style for the chilling Government Plates track "Birds."

Last year I wrote the song "captured the group preparing for war," and that assessment remains true. Andy Morin's siren-like synthesizers signal an oncoming enemy air raid. With the way he rolls across snares, Zach Hill could fill in for an 18th century military drummer and no one would bat an eye. Ride's heard screaming "I got tomorrow coming" like a sergeant rallying the troops one final time before they charge into the breach. Then instead of firing a shot, they pull back. The synths disappear. Looping guitars arrive in the bunker and slowly bleed out in front of the trio. Ride begins counting "One bird, two birds, three birds, four. Five birds, six times, life is war." I picture him polishing off a bullet after each number; cold indifference creeping across his face as he starts on another. If it's the quiet ones you've got to watch, Death Grips should be under 24 hour surveillance for "Birds."


2. "Beware"- Exmilitary (2011)

It's kismet that the first words on Death Grips' first album aren't howled by MC Ride. They're spoken by convicted serial killer Charles Manson who defiantly insists "I'm the king man, I run the underworld guy! I decide who does what and where they do it at." Without knowing who is speaking them, those words make me shudder. There's something unsettling about someone with such blinding confidence. Anyone who claims to have all the answers is someone you should steer clear of. But Manson, as we all know, was able to cultivate a cult. His "family members" didn't hear the ramblings of a madman; they heard the supreme truths of a prophet.

Even at the heights of his paranoid lyrical schizophrenia, MC Ride projects a similar confidence. On "Beware" he's fully prepared for the end, "I fear not the time I'm taken, past the point of no return." Underneath him the ground is shaken by a monstrous guitar part rescued from a Jane's Addiction number, but he remains unafraid. Distended horns and Dickie Bernard's echoed voice hail "God Is Watching You" and still he chooses to worship himself. It's an idealized version, one that's been able to survive harsh winds and apocalyptic skies. He's aware of Lorne Malvo's claim in the Fargo series "there are no saints in the animal kingdom." He can't worry about good and evil, nature has no time for philosophizing. He has to worry about surviving. To most that sounds like savagery, but to a select few "Beware" is a divine manifesto.

1. "I've Seen Footage"- The Money Store (2012)

Number one with a bullet. And an exasperated "Push It" beat. And pure "noided" rage. And volcanic guitar riffage. Whatever metric you use, Death Grips' "I've Seen Footage" is the greatest effort the Sacramento hell-raisers ever put their name to. The disparity between "I've Seen Footage" and all of their other work is astonishing. In the pop song length of 3:23 they sift through the immense wreckage of their career and lift the best pieces. Malfunctioning electronics? Check. Frenetically crisp drum machine work? It's here. Conspiratorial talk of invasive governmental practices? But of course. 
"I've Seen Footage"'s construction is comparable to an assembly line worker in a candy factory inserting razor blades at consistent intervals. You get the sticky "sweet" hook that stays with you long after, but you also get a few lacerations. The hook though is a thing of beauty, something people who've never heard of Death Grips before can dance to. It makes sense that when they created a second video for The Money Store highlight, it revolved around a pool party. "I've Seen Footage" is meant to be played at max volume for massive crowds of people. For such an insular group, "I've Seen Footage" is remarkably accessible. If one song survives now that the eulogizing is finished, it'll be this one.

No list like this is ever perfect. So if you think there's a glaring omission or an undeserving song on here, feel free to say in the comments section. Also leave any of your own thoughts on the Death Grips legacy, Death Grips fans need each other now more than ever.

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