Cannibal Ox:Blade Of The Ronin
Cannibal Ox are one of those Salinger-grade acts who followed up an instant classic full-length with a silence long enough to seem like a breakup and rustling with just enough rumors to keep hope flickering. During that late-‘90s to early-‘00s moment when “underground rap” had enough of a shadowy presence in on both sides of the now-defunct indie-mainstream aisle to seem like a cohesive genre, the NYC duo’s sole LP, 2001’s The Cold Vein, defined an era, a sound, and an ethos. But, largely on the strength of that record, the times have caught up to Can Ox: formerly their work was most fully realized of many attempted updates on Public Enemy’s apocalyptic sonic M.O., but nowadays The Cold Vein’s palette is de rigueur: its producer El-P has been consistently pushing the same envelope further and further (see last year’s Run The Jewels 2) ever since, and contemporary touchstones like Yeezus smacks of the industrial snarl that was the Can Ox calling card a decade prior.
In making their long-yearned-for comeback, what were Vast Aire and Vordul Mega to do? Keep on keepin’ on, it turns out. Produced largely by BILL COSMIQ, LP2 Blade Of The Ronin is a well-crafted, entertaining, and moderately inspired follow-up that doesn’t do justice to the fourteen-year wait, but it reimagines Can Ox as competent storytellers rather than progressive geniuses: the appropriately stark production evokes El-P’s without ever daring to challenge his legacy, keeping the focus largely on the hooky refrains and the rappers themselves. Aire, in particular, holds up well under such scrutiny, rapping circles around his supposed partner. At the end of the day, though, despite some excellent tracks demonstrating why this act deserves legendary status – “Psalm 82,” “Harlem Knights,” “The Fire Rises” – Blade Of The Ronin is disappointingly complacent work from a group who once blazed a trail into hip-hop's future. B- — Samuel Tolzmann
Long before SremmLife was ever a thing, Rae Sremmurd had some pretty high hurdles to clear. Here’s the scenario: Sremm’s preceding singles were “No Flex Zone,” and “No Type,” two floor-saturating bangers with enough load-bearing capacity to carry the weight of the entire LP in the event that the rest of it just didn’t hold up. That’s a good news/bad news situation for Khalif and Aaquil Brown, the brother duo comprising the Atlanta-via-Tupelo rap start-up Rae Sremmurd. The hypothetical bad news dealt with the overwhelming disappointment that would ensue if the album fell victim to a two-track load blow. But the more realistic good news is that both singles seemed to be concocted using an almost formulaic recipe: wit-centric songwriting, iconic vocal delivery and degree-of-difficulty production from the genre’s most formidable.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
As expected, SremmLife was never at any real risk. When you blend the raw energy, lyrical talent and writing prowess of the Brown brothers with the virtuoso of Mike WiLL Made It and Sonny Digital, good things tend to happen. And SremmLife, chocked to the brim with guest spots from Young Thug, Nicki Minaj and Jace of Two-9, flows with equal parts motor oil-viscosity and gravely grit. It’s an album that gives as much as it gains, both in trap-flow intensity and emotional catharsis. The Brown brothers may be young, but they rap with the kind of conviction you believe to the core. B — Austin Reed
A Place To Bury Strangers
A Place To Bury Strangers' noise-rock intensity has never quite reached Guantanamo levels of volume and alienation, but the group’s always focused more on pushing away detractors than pulling in fans. On their fourth LP, Transfixation, the deafening sludge remains, dusted in themes of—who’d have guessed?—anger, despair, and estrangement. If you never liked APTBS, odds are you’re not about to start here. Although the album’s capable enough to retain their old apostles—probably hooded, black-clad, and preaching noise—if you actually want to like A Place To Bury Strangers instead of just remaining devoted to them, better check out their first album. C — Jesse Nee-Vogelman
The UK’s Madchester and Brit-pop scenes have proved fertile cultural mining ground for a plethora of indie-rock bands, all eager to refract the sounds of the past through the prism of modern pop. Their aim: refine their influences, and rechannel the sounds of those bygone eras using a set of fresh eyes, in a manner not dissimilar to that perfected by Disclosure with garage and house music.
Peace made a reasonable-enough effort of it on their quirky, plucky 2013 debut In Love: it boasted a clutch of decent singles, and glimmered with a sparkle of promise for the future. Sadly, they fail spectacularly with album number two. In a time when the term “difficult second album” has become a cultural in-joke, Peace have created one of the most disappointing LPs of 2015 to-date: a hodgepodge of bland, rehashed, vanilla indie-rock, scarred by woefully inept lyrics, and completely lacking any of the infectious melodies and choruses that bolstered their debut.
Perhaps to detract from the LP’s slavish devotion to the sounds and ideas of the past, Happy People strains itself to tackle the big themes bemoaned by the current zeitgeist: materialism, economic inequality, and societal injustice. However, they’re handled with such an appalling lack of lyrical finesse that it’s impossible to take any of their spiel seriously.
“Money…Do you need it? Do you eat it when you're hungry?” lead singer Harry Koisser intones on "Money," without any semblance of sarcasm. Worse still, on "Perfect Skin," he laments a society buoyed down by narcissism and superficiality with the mindbogglingly lame refrain of “I wish I had perfect skin/ I wish I was tall and thin/ I wish I wore gorgeous clothes/ With muscles surrounding my bones.” Kids don’t write this bad at grade school - these are lyrics that should never have made it out of Koisser’s mouth to begin with, much less into production.
Musically things are little better. Track "Someday" apes Morning Glory era Oasis almost to the point of parody, whilst "O You" casts itself as a hideous chimeric meld of Shed Seven and Dodgy. It’s shameless out-and-out mimicry of the worst kind. Some of their references points were barely palatable the first time round – and reheating food beyond its sell-by date is not wise. Truth be told, it’s a sad time for British guitar music when a band like Peace craft an album so poor it makes bands like The Vaccines and Palma Violets seem like messianic, indie-rock juggernauts. Avoid. D- — Benji Taylor