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Review: Death Grips Reach Their Punk Zenith on Double Album ‘The Powers That B’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: March 31, 2015
Label: Harvest

At least one trick on Death GripsThe Powers That B is one of the oldest in the book: the double album that could fit onto one CD, a gimmick that counts Wilco and Beyoncé among past devisors. Except The Powers That B – comprising the halves Niggas on the Moon and Jenny Death – is too long for that by 37 seconds. Darn.

Thinking of these troll-era Warhols in the CD format is one way to laugh back at them, though B marks their third honest-to-Satan physical release, along with the big major-label bid that was The Money Store and its deal-ruining partner, No Love Deep Web, which featured drummer Zach Hill’s dick not-quite-swollen with pride on the front. (It arrives to you in a black sleeve so don’t go rushing off to smell the glove.) That leaves their debut mixtape Exmilitary, the surprise-album-one-month-before-it-was-cool Government Plates, and this year’s vocal-free synth marathon Fashion Week as not-so-deep web exclusives.

But no matter what kind of canceled-tour fan terrorism they engage with online, never forget that over the last four years they’ve dropped more corporeal releases that you can hold in your hand — barcodes and all — than Action Bronson and Das Racist combined. They like having a record to sell, and they enjoy making an art object. It’s more stunning that they don’t sell patches you can pin to a leather jacket.

Death Grips are classic punks. Musical antiheroes whom, fuck you, won’t do what you tell them; they don’t adhere to record release cycles, fan expectations, Trent Reznor’s touring schedule – and dick pics though they may be, there’s still something kind of nice about the existence of a band who isn’t afraid to shut it all down just to let you know they’re not afraid. Mouthpiece Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett has referred to himself as extremely private, and Hill himself is well-connected enough to throw off an all-drums album with Pearl Jam and Sleater-Kinney members in his spare time. These two genuinely don’t need fame. The fact they had L.A. Reid air-drumming and presenting them with a contract in the first place is a realization of the “get a big corporate job and fuck things up from the inside” fantasy shared by anarchists who could really use a bite.

The problem is, their punk imagination has only gone so far musically. Tune-averse samples chopped as roughly as onions that haven’t been disarmed, blown-out beats… they share these characteristics with everyone from Earl Sweatshirt to M.I.A. by now, and when the first half of B, the Niggas on the Moon disc, was unveiled last year, there was little for even longtime fans to note about it. There are Björk samples all throughout, some amazing titles (“Black Quarterback” and “Have a Sad Cum”), and Burnett’s hilarious sputter (“I don’t wanna… fuck you back!”) near the start. But unless “more of the same” was an active prank plan, it found some of the most intense artists of our time walking — not running — in place. Sometimes there’s a reason things like Never Mind the Bollocks have no follow-up, and certainly aren’t double albums.

Released between the two installments, those Fashion Week instrumentals all had acrostic titles that spelled out J-E-N-N-Y-D-E-A-T-H-W-H-E-N, so possibly as part of the concept, Death Grips wanted the real surprise to be on disc two. And it is, somewhat: Jenny Death is an actual punk album, with thickly distorted guitars and that Hill specialty: crashing live drums. Burnett’s shout-rapping finally bleeds into just shouting on tracks like the breakneck opener, “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States,” and even detours like the robot-voiced disco of “Why a Bitch Gotta Lie” have Korn-worthy riff breakdowns between verses. One of the things I’m pretty sure Burnett yells is “Axl Rose in a blender!” — .a hilarious mission statement if there ever was one.

But though it’s far more interesting and hard-hitting, with bizarre hooks where you least expect (try the airhorn, moaning bass, and whispered title of “Pss Pss,” or Burnett’s a cappella breakdown in “The Power That B” that leads into the riffasaurus “Beyond Alive”), Jenny Death still has three tracks over the six-minute mark and as limited a melodic compass as anything else they’ve done since the definitive 2012 pairing of The Money Store and No Love Deep Web.

Their squashed dynamics leave the dissonances in the gutter, and except for maybe “I Break Mirrors,” it’s hard to differentiate the highlights from the chaff. With all of the whiplash turns from noise-to-rap, the stuff that congeals here just lacks the simplicity of their best tantrums. Taken as a whole, The Powers That B (what a title, right?) suffers from the typical overlong-yet-undercooked double-album dilemma that makes it hard to imagine playing either side in a year that isn’t 2015. But let’s celebrate the fact that our beloved punks “reunited” for a double album. May they shock us next time with a cassette-only release.