After five studio albums your average musical outfit will naturally have settled into a groove. Any contrarian impulses to pull the wool over the listener’s ears will have long since been expulsed, and any brash youthful tendencies to stick two fingers up to the world smoothed out. In their place you’ll usually find a measured, confident band with a clear distillation of their sound and its limitations — as competent as it was, arguably this is where Death Grips were at with their last record, Bottomless Pit. And yet, to put it lightly, Death Grips have never acted in accordance with traditional logic. Over the past seven years their career has been defined by its esotericism and density of thought, raising the question: where does album six have left to go?
The lead up to Year of the Snitch refused to provide an answer to that question, with each of its six singles pointing in a variant skewed direction. ‘Black Paint’ delved into drudging stoner rock, centring on a scuzzy, albeit recognisably analog guitar riff. ‘Shitshow’ hinted at a navel-gazing internal odyssey, one quantified by its opening sample of Ride’s yelped “Bitch” ripped straight from the bowels of their debut, Exmilitary. ‘Flies’ similarly drew several samples from the group’s past, whilst sounding like the collapse of an insipid insect colony beneath the electric turn of a boring drill. But the album’s binding answer finds the group rooting deeper into a series of nested rabbit holes. If the borderline pop timbre of first single ‘Streaky’ suggested a gentler, more measured affair, unsurprisingly the reality is that Zach Hill, MC Ride & Andy Morin have once more confounded expectations.
However, rather than an attempt to purposefully blindside their audience, Year of the Snitch feels more like a flexing of untapped creative tissue. The opening track, ‘Death Grips is Online’, cuts straight in with a droning riff pulled from the hazy depths of shoegaze, before a haunting arpeggiated synth reestablishes a more archetypal sound. As MC Ride awakens from his slumber with a barked “I’m doing handstands on her trans am” you could be fooled into thinking this is more of the same from the group; a slight twist on their offbeat and obscure formula. And yet, as the record continues, it becomes increasingly clear that this wasn’t a one-off digression. As Ride darkly considers on ‘Flies’, there’s a deconstructive cycle to this work: “Should the opportunity arise, vomit me flies / Flies vomit me, together’s unwise, sever all ties.”
It’s appropriate then that this willingness to digress becomes most obvious in the group’s aesthetic cornerstone: the brusque hollering of MC Ride. More than ever, Ride sounds like a ghost in the machine, his vocal held high enough in the mix to be audible, but low enough that it’s often subsumed into the textural environment of the track. This is hardly a new trick for Death Grips, but on tracks like ‘Hahaha’, Ride’s yelps ride the line between aggressive and suffocating, pinned at the point of being pulled under into the cacophonous abyss. Given the group’s fascination with the blurred lines between technology and its wielder; between authored and author, it seems a logical conclusion that Ride be consumed by that which he used to pierce through with a clear-eyed precision.
What with the way the tracks needle and segue into one another, and the relatively opacity of Ride’s vocal, there isn’t really much of a foothold to grasp for on this record. It’s telling that the slightest cut, ‘Streaky’, works best as a respite from the relentless nastiness of the opening 2/3rds of the album, rather than in isolation. As with anything so intentionally dense, it’s difficult to argue that any of the experimentation doesn’t work outright, since for the most part the goal is to push up against the definitions of what constitutes a Death Grips song. Arguably ‘Little Richard’ feels a little flat in terms of its production, and a little half baked in terms of its execution, but it’s also here that the aforementioned occlusion of Ride’s vocal becomes complete, pitched down and vocoded to the point of tender melody. On Year of the Snitch, even the missteps form part of a cohesive intention.
For the sake of the listener’s sanity it’s fortunate that beneath their snarled veneer Death Grips still find time to wink at their audience. The tweet-turned-meme-turned-opening track ‘Death Grips is Online’ seems a clear enough mission statement in this regard, whilst the inclusion of Shrek director Andrew Adamson on ‘Dilemma’ sees the group embrace and offer some finality to a long running series of fan created jokes. There’s even a vein of tongue-in-cheek humour laced throughout the record that effectively acknowledges and deflates the expectations they’ve accrued at this point. Ending their record with the oxymoronically fantastic ‘Disappointed’ speaks to chin-stroking knee jerk muso reactions, whilst the flat female vocal repeating “It’s a shitshow” on the track of the same name further seems like a nod at their harsher critics, if they even exist at this point in their illustrious career.
It’s this sense of humour being held in juxtaposition with Death Grips’ willingness to embrace abrasion that recognisably identifies Year of the Snitch as a Death Grips album, even as their songwriting swerves between tangents at a greater rate than in the past. And whilst it might be a left turn for the group, or rather a winding series of country lanes, it largely succeeds in reaching its aims. Death Grips may have built their foundations on rabid drumbeats and staccato shouts, but it’s their disposition for cannibalising whole genres and reassembling them as something distinct and uncanny that makes them special. Using that as a metric, Year of the Snitch might just be the most definitively “Death Grips” record they’ve ever released; I eagerly await the inevitability of eating my words when the next record rolls around.
Year Of The Snitch is out now on Third Worlds.
Words: Blaise Radley