opinion by BRENDAN FRANK
Death Grips thrive on impulsiveness, but it so often seems like outright chaos that it can be hard to tell what they’re really after. What we do know is that they really don’t seem to enjoy being told what to do. All things being equal, autonomy seems to be their priority; they speak and act when they feel like it, and they do so without a filter. Their personalities are matched by the confrontational nature of their music, as well as the speed with which they produce it. Only four months after forming in the winter of 2010, rapper/yeller Stefan ‘MC Ride’ Burnett, percussionist Zach Hill and programmer Andy ‘Flatlander’ Morin released Exmilitary, a mixtape of aggressively hybridized hip-hop. Despite being rigorously anti-corporate, Exmilitary led to a deal with Epic Records in February of last year. Six weeks later, the Sacramentans released their gleefully demented debut album, The Money Store.
It wasn’t meant to last though. After announcing a tour to promote the album, Death Grips promptly cancelled all thirty shows in order to prepare another LP for 2012. Epic was irked, but not as irked as they would be when their signatories not so subtly attempted to sever ties by releasing their second LP for free last October. Everything about No Love Deep Web screamed “Fuck off,” from the manner in which it was released, to the commercially regressive songs, to that infamous album art. After a very public dispute, Epic granted Death Grips’ wish and ended their eight-month partnership shortly thereafter.
Unceremoniously leaked onto the internet just a week before the union-dissolving No Love Deep Web was due for physical release, Government Plates finds is predecessor long gone in the rearview mirror. Absolved of any obligation or imaginary timelines, it is in many regards the band’s least linear album yet. The trio dismantle song structure in search of new shapes and new ways to shock, with verses and choruses are largely ignored in favour of bizarre, stylistically cyclonic asides. Traversing their usual assortment of furiously delivered industrial, rap and metal, Death Grips deliver with utter abnegation in a way only punk music knows how.
And Death Grips are a punk band at heart, even if they don’t advocate anarchy in the traditional sense. Their mandate is ‘no mandates’. Clearly not content to stand idly by while Fiona Apple hogs the crown for ridiculously long titles, “You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat” leads off with clipped, grinding electro and a ballasted vocal hook that drives this point home well: “Come, come fuck apart in here,” Ride mumbles. This is music without a message, a purely physical experience that stands tall without context.
In a first for the band, Government Plates doesn’t really concern itself with lyrics. A few of the tracks have none at all, and several others contain only sparse couplets. Though his role is diminished, MC Ride still gets his licks in. Most notably on “Birds”, which couples oblique lyrics with unpalatable textures and still manages to be compelling. When the lyrics take a back seat to the noise, Hill and Flatlander thrive. The mathy “Feels Like A Wheel” and the amphetamine burbles of “This Is Violence Now” are the two strongest tracks where Ride’s presence is restricted.
The relative brevity of all of the instrumental does been lead to an overall feeling of thinness, however, as these songs wouldn’t necessarily suffer from being fleshed out a bit. The exception is grand finale “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)”, a six-and-a-half minute collage of disorienting barrages of sound that border on auditory hallucinations. It single-handedly elevates the new, more sonically focused format. The premise is exhausting, the execution jaw-dropping. Other more “conventional” tracks can still make for electrifying listening; the street drumming and overlapping time signatures on “Two Heavens” are a vertiginous reminder that while Flatlander and Hill are working outside the box, they’re still gifted musicians.
There is little precedent for what Death Grips have done in the past two years. I can’t think of another band would even imagine signing a big label contract, proceed to drop a minor masterpiece, and decide they would rather hit the reset button than try to replicate that accomplishment, much less go through with it. Government Plates doesn’t strive to be a defining post-Epic statement, but it finds Death Grips fascinated with the possibilities offered by its sound and pushing it breathlessly forward. Not bad for a band that would rather self-destruct than take orders. [B]