Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Blades (of Hades) - Shadow Art (Steal City Records - 2008)

It doesn't happen to me that often in the modern hip hop era but there are still rare occassions when a new group comes along that blows me away in ways that used to happen when I first heard a lot of artists during the golden era days. Blades (AKA Blades of Hades) from right here in Australia (Newcastle to be precise) are one such group that totally hooked me on first listen in that same way and upon hearing their third and newest album, "Shadow Art", I'm happy to say I'm still just as impressed.

What I like most about these guys (and girl) ie. MC's Kid Lyrical, Wizardry, Dusk (the girl) and DJ Skoob is that they are one of the very few groups in Australia these days that have a feel of our beloved britcore to their sound. Not to say that every song of theirs can be labelled as having that old UK flavour, as they do offer a bit of variation in their styles, but each album has at least 3 or 4 tracks that sit right in the pocket of the aforementioned style, or at least as close as you'll get to it from an Aussie crew post year 2000. It's apparent in some of the beats and the feel of the music but even more so in the way Kid Lyrical and Wizardry deliver their rhymes ie. they are relentless, full of high energy, rapid flowing and would leave most other MC's breathless trying to keep up. Admittedly they sound pretty similar to each other when they are going hell for leather pace but I'd be happy to hear 20 MC's all sounding like that as it's a great way to sound.

Britcore or not, their music is very raw, hard and stripped back, to the point of being pretty simplistic at times perhaps, which however is not in any way a detriment. On the contrary, it's what endears me most to their music. Take the opening track "Cannibalistic Act" for example. The soundtrack is really nothing much more than a mid tempo, almost live sounding, very heavy drum break with equally heavy metal guitar chords on top of it throughout the song. Add to it a bit of DJ work and a changeup in the middle of the track where the guitars are "turned off" whilst female MC, Dusk, drops her verse and that's about the extent of complexity to the song. Guess what though - this is one of my favourite tracks on the album and I love it because it's hard as fuck and raw and Kid Lyrical and Wizardry are ripping the mics with absolute power, force and energy. This is not sit back and chill, cruisy rhyming here - these boys mean business. I do have to say though that with her soft, almost whispered flow, Dusk doesn't seem to suit the heavier tracks like this and I do struggle to hear and understand what she's saying at times. She definitely has skills and rips pretty fast on a couple tracks, but she just seems too quiet and inaudible alongside the two guys, with their aggressive and strong "in your face" verbal assaults , who far overpower her.

"R.I.P" and "Backyard Dentistry" are constructed in similar fashion to "Cannibalistic..." as well, albeit with their own differences which allow them to stand alone."R.I.P" is my top track on this album and is the one I'd play to someone as my attempt to prove the "Blades do britcore" theory. It actually sounds somewhat like a sped up version of "Cannibalistic Act", with a basic enough break and heavy guitars again providing the chassis of the track. However there is far more DJ work, more breakdowns and a bit of background activity going on as well - it's just overall faster and busier and reminds me of the old Westside Sydney sound of the 90's (think of groups like 046 or Capital Punishment) which was, at times, a sound influenced by the UK hardcore style. "Backyard Dentistry" is quite interesting as the beat is slower here than the prior mentioned tracks, to the extent of head nodding pace (with a cool little flute thrown in now and then), but the guys actually speed up their rhyming in parts and give an awesome display of skills in rapid fire emceeing. In fact if anyone reading this has heard of Sydney crew Base Dynamics, who were around a few years ago, this song reminds me of them and they were one of those Westside Sydney crews who brought the hard UK influenced styles.

On a different tip, "Backnforth" is a very slow, very funky head nodder, with Asian strings in effect adding a bit of mood to the song. Dusk seems to be in her element here and really shines on this one and to me is far more suited to this sort of track. "Proceed With Caution" picks up the pace and is the kind of song that seems to build intensity as the track progresses and features a couple brilliant verses from both male MC's (who unfortunately leave Dusk somewhat struggling again). Especially impressive is the last verse which is delivered in superb rough britcore tinged ballistic style, a style which is not that far from Bandog territory ! Oh and then for something totally left of centre and unique, Spanish rhymes even get a run on the slow, low and very dark "Tribe Ill".

If there's any lesser tracks on the album they are the futuristic, super scientifical Dr Octagon'esque "V.T. Drifter", the slighty awkward somewhat g-funked "Art of Darkness" and the not as hard, ambient, moody remix of "Cannibalistic Act" - but they are only "lesser" compared to the mindblowing hard hitting highlights and nothing is wack or unlistenable on the album at all.

Last but not least, the album finale "The Burning (Intro Tunz)" is simply stellar and has to be mentioned here. Given it's name I'm not sure if it was supposed to be the intro to the album but it serves just as well, if not better, as a concluding piece. It starts off with a warning siren of sorts and then takes us to an excerpt from a Blades live show with dramatic classical music over it. When the song proper kicks off and it's basically a high speed, frenetic rhyme attack from all three MC's (and yes Dusk even sits wonderfully on this one and makes me eat my earlier words about her not suited to hard tracks) over a heavy earth shaking beat with the epic sounding classical music continuing throughout and it features a couple great changeups where the pace of the music drops off momentarily (but not the relentless pace of the rhymes) then takes off again back to the dramatic hyper assault. The first time I heard it, I had goosebumps listening to it - it's a monumental track !

As I said at the outset, I rarely react in such a way to new releases in this day and age but this is one album that I have gone nuts over (I only bought it TODAY - yep had to write about it after one listen) and I am so, so, so excited that Blades exist in my hip hop world. I have heard too, that since touring Europe and making some appropriate connections with britcore heads there, that Blades are planning to make tracks with UK legends such as Killa Instinct in the near future. That will be something to behold and exactly the realm of sound and company that I'd want Blades to be in and go even further with. They are, without question, my No.1 Australian hip hop group of today.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Readykill - In Riverz of Blood (Buback - 1994)

Readykill is another one of those English rhyming German groups who took the UK hardcore sound to deeper depths of darkness. This is their 2nd release "Riverz of Blood" which despite listing 10 tracks is really only 2 "proper" songs (the rest comprises interludes and instrumentals and it even includes an accapella version of a prior 1 minute interlude, go figure LOL). I actually remember buying this and getting excited seeing the number of tracks, only to be disappointed when I realised I was only getting basically the maxi single of sorts that I ended up with. Oh well, the two full tracks here are quite magnificent and still very, very much worth it.

The first of the full tracks is "Riverz of Blood" which finally comes in at track 3 (after 5 minutes worth of intro buildup - via track 1 and 2) is an epic track clocking in at just over 5 minutes. As many other tracks from the era similarly do, this one starts off with a horror movie excerpt with a psychotic killer referencing the "beauty" of stabbing and mutilation which sets the scene for the song. As the song intro fades we are greeted by tense and dramatic violins and strings, a mid tempo strong beat and booming, seemingly forever resonating bass which are the forces behind the heavy soundscape of darkness here. Whilst I'm not overly familiar with the who's who of Readykill (the CD booklet lists TEN group members) the two MC's on this track, Masquerade and Shootya Dead, are both solid. The commanding deep voiced Shootya Dead particularly stands out as impressive here and his higher vocal pitched partner in crime, the rather British sounding Masquerade, compliments Shootya well with his rougher style. No prizes for guessing the lyrical content here, yes it's all about blood, 666 and other themes of darkness inside the mind of a killer. A very interesting feature of this song (courtesy of the liner note information) is that there are apparently THREE DJ's on the cuts, which must be some kind of hip hop world record ! Although admittedly, I'm not sure where all three feature as the song is not particularly heavy on DJ work aside from one breakdown in the middle of the track where some DJ (or perhaps all three) kicks it nicely. Three DJ's or not, this song plays almost like a britcore opera with it's changeups and other goings on and truly something to behold. There's somewhat of a "militaristic" touch of First Frontal Assault feel to it also which only adds to it's appeal and cements it in the realms of classic britcore.

Immediately following is our other full track, "The Evilution (the 666 moves quick but ...)" and it's obvious from the title that you're getting another attack of devilish horror here although this time it seems that our MC's are trying to run from the devil rather than residing in the mind of one as seemed to be the case in the prior track. Another 5 min long operatic epic track with movie/spoken excerpts and multiple stop/starts with beat fade outs and fade ins, this one operates at a far slower, creepier pace than "Riverz ..." and it emits more of a "alone at 3am in a graveyard" sparse vibe of fear, especially with the addition of howls throughout and also violins used sparingly creating appropriate tension and drama. The same two MC's are on duty again and Masquerade seems to get far more airtime here and suits this track perfectly.

It's actually a nice contrast to have these two tracks back to back as "Rivers of Blood" is the aggressive, in your face, head smasher type of darkness where "The Evilution ..." is the sparse, slow and low, hiding in the shadows darkness. Both quite different in sound but both the same in their delivery of 100% hardcore hip hop and it goes to show that "britcore" doesn't always necessarily have to pump out beats at 140BPM with rapid rhyming.

As I mentioned at the outset, there are actually 10 "tracks" in total here and perhaps other people, especially DJ's and producer types, may get something out of the 8 non-vocal tracks here but I rarely ever listen to anything on this other than the two full efforts described above.

Readykill released a classic EP prior to this which will get a writeup on here one day also but aside from that it's a damn shame that these guys didn't release at least a couple albums with songs like the ones described here as I'm sure such albums would have been all time favourites in my collection.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Eastborn - Word Perfect (Drop Zone Records - 2002)

Despite my international hip hop digging inclinations over the years, Scottish hip hop is something that has pretty much eluded me aside from a couple artists. Eastborn is one of those artists and he brought a pretty decent album to the world in 2002, namely "Word Perfect". In fact at it's time of release this album was somewhat of a blessing as it was one of the very few albums around that touched on the hard UK sounds of old. It's not relentlessly rapid fire hardcore from start to finish but certainly there's a majority of raw bangers on the album for those who love the britcore sounds.

So what does Eastborn, a Scottish rapper, sound like anyway ? Well let's put it this way, whilst you can tell he's Scottish if you listen hard enough, i
n fact he's not really that distinct in sound from a lot of his southern peers in England (however his accent is more apparent on the accapella "Freestyle Frenzie" track). Or maybe better said by telling you not to expect anything as exaggerated or strong as what you might imagine Billy Connolly in "rap mode" to be like. Accents aside he's a really solid rapper and he's at his best over the uptempo tracks where there's a great aggressive touch to his style.

As I mentioned above there are few tracks here for the britcore heads and to me they are the ones that really make this album worthwhile. By far and above "Ruthless" is the absolute pinnacle, killer of a track on here. Easiest way to describe it would be by taking "Intergalatic" by the Beasties, darken it up a bit more/take away that Beasties "goofiness", give Eastborn that semi-distorted "over the phone" rapping style that the Beasties (again) used on "Check The Mic", throw in DJ Krash Slaughta delivering wicked scratches of D.O.C. samples for the chorus and paint it with a hardcore UK hip hop final coat. I really love this track and have to admit that I often grab this album off the rack just to play this song over and over, which is not a slight on the rest of the album but an indication of how highly I rate this track. "Stop him in his tracks, show him that I am ruthless" !

Another winner on here harking back to the days of old is "Inner City Lullaby". The production runs not much deeper than a truly neck breaking, head snapping, funky dope break beat with heavy bass thumps underneath it and it is all the better for it's stripped back undercooked rawness. Eastborn delivers some lovely rough fiery rhymes on it and swift and sharp cutting from DJ Switch ties a ribbon around this package of dopeness. "Box Fresh" is another cool track on here which is basically Eastborn going all out on the mic over beatbox beats and scratches provided by Psylent V, with some nice violins sitting behind it all.

An awesome mid song beat change-up occurs on the track "Cross Country" (feat. Disorda and Mista Defy from II Tone Commitee). The song starts off kind of mellow and tame for Disorda's opening verse but when the song hits the 1min30 mark it changes character drastically into an aggressive attack as a boombastic chest hammering beat kicks in for the verses by Eastborn and the very Scottish sounding Mista Defy who brings the song to a magnificent conclusion. Special mention for more brilliant DJ work on this one too.

"Terror Mind Glide" and "Red 6" are pretty good songs too but carry slightly more generic modern day production with mid tempo beats and moody loops behind them and probably do suffer a bit (according to my tastes anyway) by being sequenced on the album alongside the superior rough and hectic bangers in "Inner City Lullaby" and "Ruthless".

There are two or three lesser tracks here though and they all sit back to back in the second half of the album. I'm bit torn by "One Lumbajack, two lumbajack, three ...", as I like the rapid flows on it by Eastborn and guest MC Mista Bohze (also from II Tone) and also dig the quickish pace of the drums, however it features a massive overdose of Show and AG/DITC styled horns which just sound messy to me and dominate the track far too much. Coming after a brief interlude the next two tracks are generally FFWD's for me also. One is "Way of Life", which is really far too mellow and jazz break vibey for my liking and is the kind of mid 90's NY sounding song that you'd have heard 200 times before if you've been around hip hop for a while (think less interesting versions of Black Moon, Pete Rock, Gangstarr etc). "Return of the Olmec" follows and is pretty much a turn off for me as soon as the girl sings out the chorus (it's just not my thing), despite having slightly more interesting production than the prior track with a decent haunting sci-fi darkness to it which can probably be compared to an early New Flesh 4 Old or Scientists of Sound style - but nowhere near as good due to R&B missy on the chorus.

Don't let any of the minor negatives scare you though because overall this is a great album with its roots firmly set in the days of UK hip hop past and is definitely one for the fans of hard and raw hip hop product (with a touch of more current styles which should keep the young heads interested as well). It's pretty cool and fresh to be listening to a Scottish rapper too as they've been a very quiet minority in hip hop compared to their brethren south of the border.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hijack - The Horns of Jericho (Warner Bros - 1991)

"Horns of Jericho" is acknowledged by most people in the know as the Magnum Opus of all britcore albums and the blueprint for many other UK albums that followed it. I'm certainly not about to challenge that as I share the same opinion and do also regard it as one the greatest albums of all time. Although I have to admit that it's not absolute perfection, only a "mere" 95% perfect - which is close enough to amazing isn't it ?

The outstanding quality of Hijack and this album is thanks to the sum of the group's parts ie. the MC's - the vicious, malicious, streetwise, rapid spitting of Kamanchi Sly and the deep, ominous tones of Undercover, and the DJ's - the legendary Supreme and Undercover (again) who share production and turntable duties (plus a few dudes, namely Fritz, Clueso and Ulysses, who seem to do nothing on the album as such as far as I can tell).

In 2008 there is no point to go into the background of the connection between Hijack and Ice T/Rhyme Syndicate, as those who care about Hijack's music would know it all already by now (if not, Google it) but it is worth mentioning Ice T as a gauge of what sounds to expect on this album. Think Ice's "The Hunted Child" or any of his similar faster tracks, add some golden era classic PE to the mix, season it all with undertones of ominous hardcore darkness and you'd have an idea of what you're going to get from tracks like "Hijack the Terrorist Group", "Airwave Hijack", "The Syndicate Outta Jail", "The Badman is Robbin" and the brilliant afro-centric themed call for Unity of "Brother Versus Brother".

There are other flavours on show here too. I do not hesitate to state that "Phantom of the Opera" is one of my favourite songs of all time (and also a brilliant way to start the album). To me it is the foundation track of so many hardcore UK hip hop (AKA britcore) songs that followed it, or at the very least it has all the elements that define it as a perfect example of the hardcore UK style. It has the "Apache" beat as it's heartbeat with prominent bass adding weight to those beats, with various horror movie themed effects running throughout it and a few explosions and gunshots for added brutality. On top of the soundtrack we have rapid fire delivery from Kamanchi Sly coupled with absolutely terrifying aggressive vocal technique from Undercover and the combination of these two rappers on this song is truly something to behold. Also less noticeable on the track, but necessary to complete the darkness of it, is an underlying monotoned siren sound which makes me think of the deadline sound on a heartbeat monitor which completes the terrifying feel of the track. There's a sparsity to parts of the track as well which gives it a very appealing and applicable rawness too. Perfect.

"Back to Brixton", "I Had to Serve You" and "Don't Go With Strangers" do slow the BPM's down somewhat, although not to the extent of forsaking the hardcore feel of the album. "Back to Brixton" has punchy RunDMC'esque drums with guitars thrown in and it is close enough to an 80's rap/rock effort, not too dissimilar a style to what the aforementioned RunDMC did a few times as the "Kings of Rock", however thankfully the guitars are kept in the middle realms of the track and are not too cheesy or "out there". Whereas "I Had To Serve You" is probably the funkiest song on offer here with a cool bassline and head nodding tempo of snappy beats and dope cutting of a Spoonie G sample for the break. Totally different again is "Don't Go With Strangers" which is an intensely dark, rather gloomy and very ominous sounding track which lyrically plays out as a Community Service Announcement warning kids to be wary of strangers, perverts and shady types, very much as the song title implies. There really should be more songs like that - "Can you believe that he had 92 previous convictions for child abuse?, on the loose, the courts just left him, to walk and stalk another victim, we have the solution to end this confusion, diffuse them !"

What does however take away from the hardcore feel of the album (and ultimately costs this album it's perfection) is a track, well two tracks, called "Daddy Rich" which appear on the album twice in "Part 1" and "Part 2" variations, "Part 2" being a remix I think (although honestly I've never listened to either version in full in the 15 odd years I've owned this album). Frankly I don't want to spend too much more "blogspace" on these songs as they have always been a thorn in my side regarding this album but I will just say that they are both heavily R&B singing laced, very slow and very LONG songs which to me always seemed incredibly out of place with the rest of the album and are simply not appropriate in amongst all the hardcore songs. The other negative on this album, although not even 1% as upsetting as the "Daddy Rich" business is an interlude which is nothing more than someone playing the drums ad hoc style for 1 minute or so. Simply unnecessary to record something like this and it screams of album filler.

To bring this review back to where it should be, ie. on a positive note, is an amazing posse track called "The Contract". Along with Kamanchi Sly it features 3 of the greatest UK rappers ever ie. Shaka Shazam, Icepick and Katch 22's always magnificent Huntkillburyfin. All MC's flow wonderfully on this track and interestingly Kamanchi Sly gives what might be his best appearance on the album here, as if the presence of the others on the track inspired him to reach for higher heights of greatness. The music here is another staple of britcore bliss with fast bongo styled drums and a relentless very bass heavy punchy rhythm driving it, matched nicely with dramatic Hawaii Five O type crimewave sound effects behind it. One of the best posse tracks ever.

I hate to say albums are essential, as everyone has different tastes and different ideas as to what albums people should own, but I'd fail to understand why somebody who likes their hip hop hardcore wouldn't want to own this album and wouldn't fall in love with it. Yes it is essential listening for anyone who has a hardcore hip hop bone in their body and the fact that Kamanchi Sly and DJ Supreme are seen as greats of UK hip hop is another reason to pick up this example of them at their best.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Barack Obama

This may be seen initially as somewhat out of context for this site but then maybe not ...

I just want to give props to Obama and his victory. A victory for African American people, all people of colour and people who care about issues of race and inequality. A victory for the legacy and dreams of Malcolm, Martin, Huey and all other leaders that have lived and died for the cause. A victory against the oppressive governments of the past. A victory for hope.

Most of all - to bring it into context with this site - it's a victory for hip hop. For Chuck D, KRS, Katch22, Black Radical, 24K and all afrocentric rappers who saw hip hop as the black CNN, a black voice and movement, a tool for change, Obama is there as a representation of what you fought for on wax and beyond. Well done Obama and well done hip hop.