Review: Death Grips, The Powers That B

The Powers That B may never be fully understood, but the pursuit of unattainable knowledge is its own reward.
death grips powers that b

opinion byDERRICK ROSSIGNOL < @drossignol10 >

Death Grips are not a band, although they’re often treated like one. They’ve always poised themselves as an avant-garde art project using sound as its primary medium, but they release their work using formats and methods similar to those of contemporary bands and performers, so the confusion is understood. When Death Grips say that they’re going to play a gig then no-show, that they’re retiring then continue to release material, that they’re not a band then sort of operate like one, fans get upset. Death Grips have them on the hook. If an artist’s purposes include expressing their inner workings and eliciting a reaction from their observers, Death Grips are the predominant figures in their field, far more so than whatever peers they may or may not have.

It often seems that they are peerless; regardless of whether or not they’re a “band,” Death Grips produce material that is unlike anything materialized by anybody else, which is why anticipation for Jenny Death, the second half of their latest and “final” album The Powers That B, has been huge. It’s here now and the payoff is extraordinary. There are a lot of gratifying firsts in this, their “last” album.

The existence of Death Grips is an experiment, but The Powers That B shows the group dipping their toes into genre-hopping in a distinct way for the first time. The opening guitar line in “Turned Off” seems for a bit like it’s going to set up a Men-style punk epic. The closing minute of “Centuries of Damn” features a pleasingly disorienting sound collage. “Why a Bitch Gotta Lie” plays with electronically-processed vocals and sounds like a legitimate industrial dance track for about 20 seconds. Death Grips have previously gotten off on creating a claustrophobic environment that willingly suffocates with walls of sound, but this incorporation of disparate influences into their brash core ideals continues the sonic space-clearing they began on Fashion Week. It’s still in-your-face, but there’s room to breathe.

While a double album indicates the two parts are halves of a whole, Niggas on the Moon, the first disc that was already released back in June of 2014, serves more as an introduction to Jenny Death than it does its counterpart. By Death Grips’ standards, the first disc is significantly less dynamic than the second, but the thread of sampled Björk vocals that runs throughout it allows it to be processed like an extended establishing track. That’s not a detraction of Niggas on the Moon — it doesn’t feel like less, just different — but more a comment on the relationship between form and content and praise for Jenny Death, which represents another step forward for Death Grips, a group that seems to have walked over the horizon and out of sight albums ago.

The question now is how far away the sunset actually is. Death Grips have been “retired” for months. They’ve also released two albums since then. They linked to an article about The Powers That Bon their Facebook page with the comment, “you're right, we might make some more.” They don’t even know what’s next. Or maybe they do. Maybe their coyness is part of the Death Grips art exhibition. Anything is possible in this fledging new era of unconventional music releases.

But there’s no relevant benchmark to relate Death Grips to. Unpredictability as it’s commonly practiced is formulaic, but it does seem truly impossible to foresee Death Grips’ next move. The density of their music works in their favor: Death Grips are like a magician, drawing focus to one hand with material that takes so much satisfying effort to unpack while the other hand plans the next step nobody has seen coming yet.

The unpacking never stops, though. The Powers That B may never be fully understood, but the pursuit of knowledge, even that which is unattainable, is its own reward. All the while, the next lesson is being prepared. Or maybe it isn’t. Niggas On The Moon: B | Jenny Death: B+ | The Powers That B: B+