[Originally published via Albumism.com here]
When DJ Shadow‘s debut LP Endtroducing….. dropped in 1996 on Mo’ Wax Recordings, so did hip-hop’s jaws. This thirteen track sonic swerve was rightly and deservedly hailed as an instant classic. A backpack-wearing, digging-in-the-crates hip hop equivalent to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions (1973) or Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971). Yes, that good.
Think Akai MPC60 as opposed to a guitar and suddenly that’s not quite as incongruous as it seems. The then 24 year old DJ ‘Josh Davis’ Shadow was so cool he personified the “hip” in hip-hop. And as for shadows? He didn’t even throw one.
Tracks like “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” (that title though!) and “Organ Donor,” which sounded like the organ in question was a heart in urgent need of defibrillation (hip-hop’s heart?), defined and then redefined what could be sampled and what should be sampled.
The awarding of such rich plaudits onto a long form debut, as opposed to the pinnacle of a career high point, would have put lesser artists off their stroke. But Shadow just seemed to give a nonchalant and metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, completed a label switch to Island and then cracked on with album number two: 2002’s The Private Press.
This too was an intelligent and intuitive piece of work. Some baulked at the sheer gall in his shameless sampling of Patti Smith’s charmingly titled “Pissing in a River” for a ghostly and paranoid “Blood On The Motorway.” He also revealed a hitherto unknown sense of sly humor as evidenced on “Right Thing/GDMFSB.”
There was no turning back, DJ Shadow was entering deep sonic space, and if you were musically open-minded, he was only too pleased to have you along for the ride.
Next up was The Outsider (2006), which was nothing less than a hip hop Electric Ladyland. Here was a collection of agile, stylistic switches & swerves. From the gorgeously string adorned “This Time,” to club bangers such as “Turf Dancing” which fell into the same stylistic space as the Neptunes.
Five years on, Shadow delivered 2011’s The Less You Know The Better and quality control was again maintained. Business as usual then.
As we’ve come to expect from this predictably unpredictable artist, old school hip-hop is never too far removed, and on The Less You Know’s “Stay the Course,” rap royalty big hitters Posdnuos (De La Soul) and Talib Kweli emcee as if their very lives depended on it.
Little Dragon’s songstress Yukimi Nagano, last heard warbling winsomely on the Gorillaz’ “To Binge” and “Empire Ants” from 2007’s Plastic Beach, is just delightful on “Scale It Back,” which she imbues with a perfect pop sheen and more than a little class.
Two weeks ago, June 2016, and The Mountain Will Fall surfaces with Shadow in combative mood, seemingly intent on confounding our expectations of him once again.
This is an album that harkens back to more traditional, back-in-the-day symmetry, so there are two sides, two suites. A def diptych, if you will.
Opener “The Mountain Will Fall” has a thrumming, phat synthesizer the likes of which hasn’t been heard since the heyday of the Art of Noise.
Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike & El-P roll hard on “Nobody Speak,” which gives a respectful nod to Eazy-E’s 1988 classic “Nobody Move.” It’s bolstered by a three octave guitar figure over which the pair spit fire with raw energy and intelligent wordplay.
Third track “Three Ralphs” is a warning that rougher waters lie ahead, sonically speaking. It fairly burbles along with hiccupping samples, as hard hi hats fight for their lives.
German composer Nils Fram, renowned for blending modern textures with classical forms, guests on “Bergshcrund,” and acquits himself brilliantly with inventive electronic extemporizing.
It’s at the midway point where things become challenging. Depending on your opinion, this means that something incredible and new is happening, or you are about to be in for a protracted period of head scratching and hill wandering.
If Hitchcock was alive today he’d use “Depth Charge” to soundtrack his febrile cinematic imaginings, with its oddly tuned kick drum that also doubles as a bass tone. Flutes, piano, acoustic guitar & synth all pull and push and fight for space. It’s both disconcerting and paradoxically intriguing, and rather impressive.
“Mambo” is virtually musique concrète, as it busies itself assembling various unearthly and celestial sounds to create an atonal mood piece that’s incredibly brave, and it ultimately succeeds. Fortune favors the brave!
“Ashes to Oceans” (fabulously imagistic title) is full of percussive textures and hi-hats kissing and colliding until they acquiesce and make way for a glorious finale of strings that re-stabilize the song, and bring it to a natural cinematic coda.
Final piece “Suicide Pact” starts with thoughtful guitar picking which is then speared by percolating trap-like hi-hats and a spooky opiated vocal. It feels like you’re marooned in the wrong city & that something extremely injurious to one’s health is about to occur, It’s an entirely fitting finish.
We’re now nearly 20 years on from the tectonic plate smashing Endtroducing….., and if you’re happy enough to be pitched into DJ Shadow’s world, where you will be allowed to witness his forensic examination of the very DNA of music, then he’s happy for you to join him. After all, it’s been quite a journey thus far.
This album will satiate the open-minded who know that in the fullness of time this will be held up as a revolutionary work. To those who are still waiting for Endtroducing….. II, there might be a tinge of disappointment.
There’s no turning back for DJ Shadow now as he enters deeper sonic space, and I for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Notable Tracks: “Ashes to Oceans” | “Depth Charge” | “Nobody Speak” | “Suicide Pact” | “The Mountain Will Fall”