Death Grips // Bottomless Pit
by Jeff Holland on May 15, 2016
Posted in: Album Review, Electronic, Hip Hop, Punk, Rap, Rock
The summers of 2014 and 2015 could not have been more different for me. 2014 was the start of a new relationship, and 2015 was the difficult ending. Although the two summers were a year apart, and although they corresponded to two opposite emotional poles of my life, I associate both summers with many of the same albums, which I often played in my car while driving around my hometown. Among these albums were Sharon van Etten’s Are We There, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children, and, strangely enough, Death Grips’ The Powers that B.
You see, June 2014 was when everyone’s favorite experimental punk rap group leaked the first half of The Powers that B, a sprawling, aggressively experimental double album that preceded Bottomless Pit. So, that summer, the first half of The Powers that B was the five-headed lion roar that complemented my ecstatic confidence and excitement at the blossoming of newfound love. Then, in March 2015, they released the second half of the album, and the summer of 2015 saw me consuming the full album in fiery blasts as an antidote to post-breakup depression, when I didn’t feel like wallowing in it with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Beach House.
History repeats itself, so it looks like summer 2016 will be another Death Grips summer for me, and in a very, very good way. Death Grips released Bottomless Pit this past Friday, May 6, with an uncharacteristic absence of absurd hype-building shenanigans, save for one single released via hotline. Call 1-844-278-7255 and press 1 to hear “Trash” through your phone’s receiver. The other singles, “Hot Head” and “Eh,” were released via relatively conventional means. This stands in contrast with some of their past methods of promoting their albums. For example, they promoted No Love Deep Web through the release of an alternate reality game. They teased the second half of The Powers That B by releasing Fashion Week, an entire separate album of instrumentals, all while they were supposedly “broken up” (and to this day, nearly two years later, they still have not rescinded the announcement of their “breakup,” though apparently they did delete it from their Facebook page).
The relatively unassuming release of Bottomless Pit seems to send a message in line with the style and structure of the new album. Death Grips have abandoned the pomp and grandeur of the 81-minute double album that was The Powers that B. Although Bottomless Pit is not “traditional” in most senses of the word, its strength comes less from lofty concepts and more from the raw, visceral catharsis one can find in traditional punk as well as some hip-hop. Death Grips have already shown their strength as genre-crushing innovators, with their distinctive and unpredictable yet naturally, confidently stitched-together pastiche of genre influences, from across the spectrum of hip-hop, pop, rock, metal, industrial, house/dance, and noise. Bottomless Pit is no more than a continuation of the creativity they’ve shown throughout their discography. Now that they’ve demonstrated their capabilities as conceptual artists, the most valuable thing they can do is to make a rollercoaster of an album full of killer songs. On that front, Bottomless Pit more than delivers.
Death Grips’ often-conflicting qualities of dissonance/mayhem and memorability/likability come together beautifully in the album’s lead single, “Hot Head.” In the verses, Zach Hill’s wild, meterless drumbeats steamroll toward oblivion, while Flatlander revs the racecar-like synths that have become one of his trademarks, and MC Ride shouts incoherent absurdist lines like “My cobra head draped in mota/Hooded regime like ebola.” The chorus then breaks down suddenly into a relatively slow 4/4 beat while Flatlander rolls out descending minor arpeggios from a synth that sounds like it could have come out of some low-budget 80s sci-fi film. It’s in this chorus that Ride declares: “What’d you tell them? I just told them hell’s existence. But you know me, don’t nobody know my business.” In the midst of this inscrutable, fascinating killer of a song is a kind of mission statement: Ride is not here to bare you a piece of his soul, but to remind you that hell is real. As if anyone were doubting his intentions.
The whole album is a high-energy, high-octane whirlwind that ebbs, flows, and always keeps you excited and hungry for more. The opener, “Giving Bad People Good Ideas,” sounds like a morbidly satisfying blast of ultraviolent, pummeling industrial black metal. In “Spikes,” Flatlander’s slimy synths and Zach Hill’s manic percussion create a wild, dissonant background for, surprisingly, one of the catchiest hooks on the album. The bouncy “Eh” ventures a bit out of typical Death Grips territory with a major-key synth hook and lyrics that manage to be legitimately hilarious while still retaining Death Grips’ trademark nihilism. The energy is so high you’d think Death Grips consumed nothing but Red Bull and speed while recording this album.
But just because the songs retain a fast pace and a high level of energy doesn’t mean they aren’t nuanced and detailed. The careful listener will find that the album is full of clever, subtle details that give the songs extra depth. In “Warping,” the synthesizers literally warp underneath Ride’s vocals as he chants hypnotically: “All I do is lose my forrrrm, I’m warrrrping.” In “BB Poison,” every snare hit actually sounds like a bullet popping out of a BB gun. In “Eh,” the delay effects on Ride’s vocals are echoed by delay effects on the synths in subtle, aesthetically pleasing ways. “Subtle” isn’t an adjective most people would use to describe Death Grips, but maybe from now on they should.
As always, Ride’s absurdist lyrics are a highlight. In “Three Bedrooms in a Good Neighborhood,” he juxtaposes rioting punk fury with surrealist uncertainty: “Your table through my head/My body through your bed . . . Three bedrooms in a good neighborhood/On fire like a margarita made out of wood.” It’s like Ride wants to riot so hard that material reality becomes null and void. He wants to break every law, including and especially the laws of physics. “Ring a Bell” bursts into one of the more “metal” songs on the album, with distorted guitars that redefine the word “heavy”—but then Ride spits in the face of that white-dominated genre when the music cuts out for him to bellow the opening line: “America, America, now I’m coming Africa, my death is money!” Death Grips have never been overtly political—more like anti-political—but still the anti-colonialist, anti-racist sentiment comes through strongly.
The closer and title track, “Bottomless Pit,” takes the opportunity to club you over the head one last time. It harks back to the opener, “Giving Bad People Good Ideas,” in that it overwhelms you with distortion and a pummeling 4/4 beat. The difference is that while the opener was splattered with murderous black metal distorted guitar, the closer sounds as if Flatlander used every synth in his arsenal at the same time, in addition to distorted guitar. Ride concludes the song (and the album) with a repeated threat too ridiculous to be true: “I’ll fuck you in half.” Are we meant to laugh? Absolutely, but that doesn’t have to prevent us from feeling the power of Ride’s vocal presence as this final track assaults our ears.
The silly closing line also shows the essence of the nihilism of Death Grips. “Why are they so angry?” people sometimes ask when they hear their music. The thing is, Death Grips don’t need a reason, nor does anyone, to be angry when living in a world full of suffering where no one exists on purpose, no one has control over their lives, and nothing is guaranteed to have any significance. To be angry about anything is ridiculous and unproductive, but we do it anyway, and it’s how we get by. So we shout along to MC Ride: “I’ll fuck you in half,” and then we laugh. It’s all we can do.
This album is one of the most purely enjoyable releases Death Grips have ever produced. They can always be relied upon to deliver the energy, charisma, power, and nerve it takes to make an album like this, but not since The Money Store have they jammed those qualities into such a tight and listenable package. We should feel privileged that a band so important and relevant to modern music has made an album so riotously fun for our enjoyment. They don’t owe us anything, since their discography is already so full of great accomplishments, but now they’ve given us another addictive and raucous album to be a soundtrack to this next summer and many, many summers to come.
BEST TRACKS: 2, 3, 5, 4, 1, 10, 13
RIYL: Hella, Swans, Run the Jewels
Bottomless Pit was released on May 6 on Third Worlds. You can stream it from Death Grips’ official YouTube account.
Jeff Holland is a freshman. He has a radio show for dark music called Purge Ur Demons on Monday nights from 8-9 and a show for non-a cappella music called Songs A Cappella Groups Would Never Sing (co-hosted with Eric Benoit and Nell Sather) on Wednesday nights from 7-8. He will be music director in spring 2017 along with Maddy Goodhart.