From the minute I saw the grotesque artwork for Death Grips’ latest record, “Year of the Snitch,” I was excited.
I won’t even try to hide my bias here. Death Grips has been one of my favorite bands for years, and “Year of the Snitch” was my most highly anticipated release of 2018.
For the uninitiated, Death Grips started their career as a hyper-aggressive hip-hop group and has slowly morphed into something more than that. Adding elements of metal, hardcore and the glitchiest electronic music imaginable, the group has become a straight experimental group.
The album cover for “Year of the Snitch,” featuring the group’s most off-putting album art ever with mouths protruding from a patio table, promised this would be the band’s weirdest outing yet.
Death Grips kept that promise, and then some.
The band does stymie my normal process of writing reviews. While I normally like to focus on lyrical analysis, doing that with a Death Grips album is pure folly.
The group’s abrasive frontman, MC Ride, stitches bars together into something that feels more akin to a William S. Burroughs novel than a standard rap. For Ride, the meaning of his lyrics is less important than the feelings they give rise to.
Let’s look at early-album cut, “Flies.”
“Should the opportunity arise, vomit me flies,” Ride mumbles on the chorus. “Flies vomit me, vomit green eyes.”
There are a lot of places we can go with this. The color green calls to mind jealousy and also sickness, while flies suggest some sort of pestilence. However, there are no answers to the mysteries in Ride’s lyrics. Death Grips has only had a few lyrically coherent songs, and none of them are on “Year of the Snitch.” Instead, let’s focus on the music.
So, going back to “Flies,” the track is fascinating. It starts off slow, almost sluggish, calling to mind the wriggling movements of maggots. Suddenly, though, the track explodes, with Ride switching into his trademarked barked vocals. It jitters back and forth between the two sounds, often in the same verse.
Then, the record bursts into “Black Paint,” the most metal song Death Grips has ever produced. Ride screams over a blaring guitar: “Drop the curtains cloaked in shadow, more shade/Black, black paint.”
It’s hard to fully emphasize the power of Ride’s vocals here. He sounds menacing, frightening and larger than life. He serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Zach Hill’s dizzying, pummeling drums.
And those drums only get more dizzying as the record progresses. “S**tshow” sees Death Grips tooling around with the sounds of hardcore punk. Hill blasts at the drums with such ferocity that it’s easy to picture them set ablaze, while Ride’s machine-gun vocals blur together into an incomprehensible blur.
The track is an absolute assault on the senses. The first time I heard it, I was nearly overwhelmed by it. After a few more listens, I began to recognize patterns and I realized there was more to this track than a smattering of sounds.
For the first time, the band even delves into the realms of indie rock, especially on tracks “Dilemma” and “Disappointed.” These tracks are easily my favorite on the record, as their hectic nature takes a turn. Instead of being typically aggressive, the group becomes manic, almost gleeful.
This is especially true on the latter track, where Ride does a call-and-response with himself, alternating quickly between whispering and shouting at the listener, all while a jaunty piano part plays in the background.
Undoubtedly, though, the strangest track on the record, and the strangest the band has ever recorded, is “The Fear.” The song is a manic jazz fusion — seriously, jazz fusion — that sounds like it comes out of a nightmare circus. It’s easy to picture “The Fear” serving as the soundtrack of a David Lynch horror film, with the main character spiraling into some deep madness.
“Year of the Snitch” is not at all an easy record to listen to. It’s confusing, unsettling and often frightening. For those who are willing to plunge into the darkness it offers, though, there are definitely rewards.
If you’re a fan of experimental music, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy “Year of the Snitch,” as it features some of the most complex music of the year. But as a word of warning, if you want your music to be easy to digest, it might be better to just skip it.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan.
Album: ‘Year of the Snitch’
Artist: Death Grips
Label: Third World
Best Tracks: ‘Dilemma,’ ‘Disappointed’
Worst Track: ‘Linda’s in Custody’