Album Review: Walter Gross – The Fra Mauro Highlands

by Dustin

FMH

8.5/10

On January 31st, 1971 NASA would launch the eighth manned mission to the moon, Apollo 14. The three person crew kicked off the 9 day mission from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39, before travelling to the Fra Mauro Highlands on the near side of the lunar surface. This would serve as the last of NASA’s simplistic (relatively speaking) H-Type missions to the moon, as they upgraded to the longer J-Type with Apollo 15. While this particular Apollo mission was relatively understated, its legacy lives on as a success during the booming age of space exploration. An era that had a particular vibe of wonder, and captured the imagination of individuals even outside the realm of science.

One may now be asking how this is relevant to music, and Walter Gross is the answer to that question. Though he may not have been an astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission (or even much of a space enthusiast, for that matter), his love of ambient concentrative music lead him to an interesting place of inspiration: the Voyager recordings. Finding himself endeared to the organic beauty of these pieces, he began work on his own out of this world experimentation. Quickly reaching full realization with a 23 minute (50 counting the Stray Signals Cassette Mix) long tape of atmospheric allure, The Fra Mauro Highlands. An album which would suitably see release on the 47th anniversary of Apollo 14.

Though it bares his name, The Fra Mauro Highlands was not the type of project one has come to expect from Walter Gross. It abandoned a lot of the crunchier, abrasive noise elements he’s become known for in the past, opting to try something a little more ambient instead. Once expectations were subverted however, this was a wonderful listening experience. It hit the flavor of desolate space music perfectly, and managed to feel cold while also inspiring a sense of adventure. There was a particular hint of retro-futurism to the tape, to the same vein as a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was due primarily to brilliant sound contrast constructed by Walter Gross. The entirety of The Fra Mauro Highlands had an underlying subtle ambiance of whooshing and swirling sounds that were distinctly galactic and harrowing. Atop of this there were moments of gorgeously vintage sounding synthetic instrumentation, used sparsely enough to maintain a sense of mechanical exploration through an all encompassing emptiness. It didn’t mess around with precisely divide tracks. Rather, this album was one continuous piece of music that built upon itself, evolving in a natural and off-the-cuff manner.

With all that in mind, there were aspects of The Fra Mauro Highlands carrying Walter’s signature touch. It was an immensely unsettling selection of work, with the emptiness and overall tone having created a strong sense of urgency and apprehensiveness of the unknown. With artistic anxiety being such a mainstay in his music, this familiarity was oddly comforting. It provided reassurance that this is exactly how the project was supposed to make one feel, and not an emotion to be avoided. The “Stray Signals Cassette Mix” which followed the conclusion of The Fra Mauro Highlands rewound things back a little further stylistically, while having maintained the same overall vibe. It wasn’t the star of the show by any means, but it was very good and really provided a feeling of returning home to the established fan of Walter Gross. A return after a fantastic journey.

Much like the Apollo 14 mission itself, The Fra Mauro Highlands will likely go down as one of Walter Gross’ most under-the-radar releases. While it was absolutely excellent, it appealed to a listener base even more niche than his signature barrage of noise. Which is unfortunate, because it was a stunningly beautiful, and somewhat anxious, ambient album. It wore its inspirations on its sleeve, and the ambition was undeniable. Do-it-Yourself music is about pushing limits, catching waves of inspiration, and trying things outside of the box just to see what will happen. Walter Gross did all of these things with The Fra Mauro Highlands. It embodied the spirit of the scene entirely, and should find itself respected as such.

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Album Review: LARS – Last American Rock Stars

by Dustin

LARS

LARS/10

That score is not a mistake, nor is it a bad thing (it’s actually incredibly good); all will become clear in due time. Sit back in your easy chair, smoke something, and read on about a super clever project from two mainstays in the Detroit underground.

Veteran emcees King Gordy and Bizarre had been teasing a duo project for a long time, perhaps nearly a decade. Originally under the group name Davidians, the pair released multiple “street single” one-off songs in addition to regularly collaborating on each other’s solo material. In spite of this, it seemed as if the idea of a full length Davidians project had been permanently relegated to the back-burner for both emcees. This changed in 2017, when the enigmatic pair found a home for their collaboration on Magik Ninja Entertainment. The name Davidians was dropped in favor of LARS (standing for Last American Rock Stars), taking on a rocker theme that King Gordy had been toying with for years. Later the same year they released a teaser mixtape called Foul World, and announced Last American Rock Stars as their debut album. The release was slated for early 2018.

Flash forward to 2018, and they followed through on that promise. The record was finally here.

Last American Rock Stars played out like a concept album of sorts. It felt as if one was being brought along for a drug fueled bender lead by two of the wildest scumbags on Earth. Perhaps unsurprisingly the album had an incredibly macabre tone. There was this looming grimness to everything, regardless of how celebratory a song may have been. King Gordy and Bizarre played the role of degenerate rock stars perfectly, as if they were addicted to the party lifestyle to the point that consequences no longer retained their meaning; however, an awareness of the damage being done was always present. King Gordy’s fascination with individuals such as GG Allin showed significantly the the direction of LARS on this project. Ultimately the album captured the qualities that most would attribute to a outlandish-yet-grimey rockstar life: violence, sex, drugs, and criminal debauchery. These themes were presented with a lovely degree of nuance, making them seem fun as hell, but a surefire way to burn out quickly.

The concept may have been slightly loose, but it was incredibly ambitious. The chaotic nature of the events depicted on Last American Rock Stars did lead to a confusingly scattered first listen, but once everything settled it was executed quite well. It took two or three listens for everything to come together, but it was well worth the time.

Beyond that, the album just had a lot of things working in its favor. King Gordy is in his prime as a rapper right now, and it felt like he could do no wrong here. If he wasn’t bringing a spastic energy to a track, he was probably using a mesmerizingly smooth flow to dazzle the listener. He was the true highlight of the release, and songs such as “Just Got Out The County,” “California,” and “Rock N Roll” feature some of his best work on the mic in years. Bizarre was more hit-and-miss, but even his weaker verses had merit in their personality and construction of the “last true rock stars alive” theme; moreover, his stronger verses were perhaps his most entertaining since the heyday of D12. The duo had some hilarious lines scatter throughout the totally depraved lyrical content as well, which gave the album a nice sense of range. One of the most memorable moments in this regard is on “Rock N Roll”, where King Gordy boasts about being a mosh-pit starter immediately before attempt to persuade the listener to attend a LARS show because “it only costs six dollars.” Humor like that brought a lot of character to Last American Rock Stars, and it was used sparingly enough to keep everything fresh.

It should also be noted that “can we borrow y’all lawnmower?” is one of the funniest adlibs to ever appear on a rap album. Thank you, Bizarre, you are a treasure.

The featured artists were also cool, and that’s not always easy to find in underground projects. Fury, Monoxide Child (of Twiztid) and Twista had the most interesting verses, but everybody else held their own. It truly felt as if LARS were taking you to meet some of their equally (if not more) trashy friends, and it bolstered the concept wonderfully. The production was also selected and handled in an impressive manner. The blend of trap, rock, and underground throwback beats intermingled more smoothly than one may have expected. The variety did a superb job at giving each song a distinct backdrop and emotional feel. For example, tracks like “Stomp” and “I Believe I Can Fly” could not have been further removed from each other sonically, yet they both sounded perfectly at home on Last American Rock Stars. With all that in mind, King Gordy and Bizarre made excellent selections for a supporting cast and the album benefited from it hugely.

The only real issue with Last American Rock Stars was the mastering. The album got significantly quieter during and after “Lit.” At least, this is true on the Spotify release (the physical or iTunes versions may not suffer from this issue). It wasn’t a huge deal at all, though. The mixing overall is fantastic, and it’s fairly easy to slide the volume up on the later songs using one’s audio player of choice. [Update 25/02/18: mastering was not an issue on the physical copy or iTunes version, this appeared to have been exclusive to Spotify]

The reason Last American Rock Stars was so difficult to assign a score to is the fact there is no frame of reference to compare the album. It sounded like a beast entirely of its own, and the uniqueness was refreshing. They managed to turn a scattered tracklist into a musical cross between The Hangover and Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. It played through like a journey into a life that most will never live, with King Gordy and Bizarre enthusiastically inviting the listener along for the experience. The album felt dirty and taboo, but also thrilling and adventurous. It forced inhibitions out the window, and aimed to take the listener wherever it pleased. The Detroit duo may have taken a lot of years to finally come together on a project like this, but the wait meant that their potential got to be fully realized. Last American Rock Stars is absolutely a recommended listen, particularly for those wishing to dive into an album that is distinctly true to itself.

Bambi of FilthyBroke Recordings Gives Her Perspective on Being a Woman Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry

by Dustin

fbr

The music industry is a interesting world, and not always a friendly one. This is true from the top all the way down to the grass root level. Many on the outside are completely unaware of everything that goes on outside of the spotlight, leaving it to those who work in the shadows. Fortunately, sometimes these people share their experience. Today’s interviewee is one of those people. Bambi, the designer-slash-promoter-slash-wonder-woman at FilthyBroke Recordings, was gracious enough to lend us an interview discussing all the wonders of working at a do-it-yourself record label; moreover, she speaks on being a woman in a male-dominant scene, and how it’s shaped her perspective on all things music.

Read the interview below, it’s worth it.


EN: As usual, I’ll ask you to give a brief introduction to yourself. Whenever you’re ready. And we’ll just jump off from there.

Bambi: I’m Bambi, I’m originally from the Bay Area; currently living in Seattle, Washington. I work with FilthyBroke Recordings.

EN: Did you have any experience working in music before, or has FilthyBroke been your first adventure down that avenue?

Bambi: I started working with FilthyBroke in fall of 2016. Prior to that I worked for a few years in music in various capacities, put out a release with a former friend, some light managerial stuff (basically answering emails), building & running the website, shipping, that kind of stuff. Concurrently I worked part time at an entertainment V.C. in Oakland, which invested in local venues, recording studios and the like.

EN: What capacity do you work in with FilthyBroke? I know you’ve done a bit of design, but I suppose I’m curious of what your day-to-day is like when working with the label.

Bambi: Yup, I do art/design work for releases and video bumps. My day to day label responsibilities vary. I’m responsible for updating and maintaining the website along with my homie who built the site, instagram, art for promos, and so on. Michael and I spend a lot of time on FaceTime listening to music and brainstorming for upcoming releases, merch, and other projects and figuring out how to make it happen. Currently we’re preparing for his upcoming OMLT release in February and I’m handling the merch end. We will be releasing some T’s & hoodies along with his new EP.

EN: I imagine the creative freedom is nice when working in that sort of environment, but does it ever feel like there’s very little room for mess-ups with it being a DIY style label?

Bambi: FBR has been around almost 4 years now, but we are still a very small label. We are still trying to carve out our own niche and grow. The smaller you are, the more detrimental mistakes, even small ones and especially financial ones are. Not only that but we don’t sign artists, we work with them on a project by project basis. As Michael noted online the other day ”labels need artists way more than the other way around” and we often build friendships with the artists we work with and we want to do right by them because we respect them and appreciate we couldn’t continue without them.

EN: So you guys feel like establishing the friendships helps to make sure everyone stays happy? Because that’s a very unique and personable approach.

Bambi: I’m not saying we have to be friends with every artist we put out. A mutual respect and belief in the music is more than enough. Just noting that often we get to know people while working on releases and it sometimes develops into friendships that extend past the project. But I do think working with people you vibe with and relate to on a personal level makes for a better experience all around.

EN: Does the vibe that Michael has with FilthyBroke Recordings suit you as a person better than your previous experiences in music? Having worked with both of you myself, I know the label cares a lot. It seems like it would be fun to be involved in (and it has been for me).

Bambi: For sure. Working with someone that listens to your input and respects your opinions and ideas is always the ideal, which I feel like Michael does. I know people say you shouldn’t get into business with friends or family and while it definitely can and has gone badly for me previous I still think getting money with friends is the best kind of money to get.

EN: Something I’ve noticed when networking is that women are fairly absent behind the scenes in music. Aside from artists, often when I’m contacting a label or manager they’re men. You’re actually one of the few I know with active involvement behind the scenes. Do you feel that women are underrepresented in that facet of the industry?

I know that’s sort of a blunt question, but it’s something I’ve noticed. It’s quite odd.

Bambi: Underrepresented, yes absolutely, but not necessarily for lack of involvement. Particularly at the indie level there’s a shit-ton of wives, girlfriends, sisters, and female friends behind the scenes answering emails, shipping merch, planning shows, hitting up record shops and listening to the same unfinished song 6,789 times because a high-hat was added. You know, just trying to help make it happen. Shit, some of these dudes likely going on tour with mom’s Amex (I stole that mom’s Amex bit from Michael).

I want to make it clear I’m not saying all artists do this by any means, but I do think is fairly common place, especially at the beginning and end of careers. I have no issue with it, supporting the people around you is important. What I do take issue with is the lack of credit. I don’t give a shit if all they’re doing is packing and shipping merch, if your homie did you a favor you’d shout him out; but, I see some of these motherfuckers out there acting like they do all this shit on their own or down-playing (either during or after the fact) the contributions of other, especially woman, which is a foul. And yes, I’m speaking from experience.

It’s one of the reasons I was very hesitant when Michael asked me to work with FBR. It took me a few months of me ‘helping out’ and him continually demanding I be credited for my work to really be like, ok I guess we’re in it to win it now. Oh, and you know what? He actually pays me. Even if it’s just a few bucks, I get my cut and I get it in a timely fashion. Amazing.

EN: Do you feel like this has created sort of an environment of complacency among those not being credited? As if they feel they’re just supposed to help however they can and ask for nothing back, particularly among the supporting women in a label or artists life?

Bambi: I don’t think it’s complacency. I’ve had to learn to take credit for my work (I didn’t even realize people received art layout credits until last year) and that expecting/taking credit isn’t asking for accommodation it’s just getting what’s due and what I’d give anyone else I work with.

I don’t think everyone does it intentionally, but I do think that it’s speaks to a larger mentality. As more artists move away from labels and sell independently I think most have realized how important their fans are. But, that also means a lot more reliance on fans for help beyond just buying music and going to shows. I’ve seen supporters help get people booked, do cover art, and web design work, etc and barely get a thanks much less paid. End of the day, gender issues aside and regardless if you work in music or not, I think it’s important to appreciate and acknowledge the people supporting you and if you can’t do that at least give them credit on their work, especially if you aren’t paying them. You meet the same people going up as you do going down.

I suppose to change shit the burdens gotta be on both parties. Basically, don’t be an asshole and regardless if you’re getting paid demand credit on your art, web designs, beats, etc.

EN: Do you have any advice for individuals who, likes yourself at one point, might be struggling to work up the courage to actually ask for their due credit? I realize that’s sort of open ended, but I imagine there are hundreds if not thousands in situations where they aren’t receiving their just dues.

Bambi: For me it wasn’t that I was scared to speak up and more just being naive. I kinda fell into the music business, I never intended to be here, so for a long time I just assumed if I’m not getting credited then it’s not work people typically get credit for. And that’s on me for being a dumbass expecting most people wanna do right by others and not properly educating myself. Once I realized that wasn’t the case shit changed. So do I guess my advice would be pay attention and get informed.

EN: Something semi-related I wanted to speak with you about is bullying in the industry. Particularly from a gender issues perspective but also just in general. I was speaking to an artist recently who expressed sadness over how many of her male peers seem to be quick to try and push her around. Would you say this is something prevalent in the industry even at the Do-it-Yourself/Underground level?

I ask because I know bullying is an issue of great importance to FilthyBroke as a label. Such as the anti-bullying fundraising compilation record you guys curated (which I will link to here).

Bambi: Full disclosure here, I am a bully. I’ve dealt with bullies my whole life and I learned very young if someone keeps fucking with you, you fight back. Fight fire with fire so to speak. I know that a lot of people don’t agree with that way of thinking and think you should always try to be the bigger person. I admire those kinda people but I’m not one of them and I don’t want to misrepresent myself.
I think it happens a lot at all levels. I can’t speak from a female artists perspective, but I’ve seen it happen from a third party view. As well as there’s definitely been a number of instances for me personally where I’ve felt like I was being talked down to, dismissed or pushed around from either male artists or males working in other aspects of music. But it can be a difficult thing to stand up for yourself, especially to people who may be more successful in music or who’s work you admire. Not only that but the music world is truly very small, with a lot of business and friendships mixing. I think (hope) things are changing but it’s still very much a “boys club” type mentality in a lot of ways. As a woman I think when you confront someone in any work environment you run the risk of getting labeled ‘difficult’ or ‘crazy’ or ‘emotional’ or (insert any code word for bitch).

I don’t blame anyone for being hesitant or feeling too intimidated to speak up as it could have the potential to damage working and/or personal relationships, as well as, current or future opportunities beyond the person you’re calling out.

EN: I don’t really want to condone or condemn what you opened with, but I almost feel like there are certain situations where bullying the bullies is a necessary evil. I’m sure there are plenty of people who just won’t stop, even if the victim tries to be the better person. Right? I know that was the case when I was a kid. It doesn’t seem to change much as adults. Though I can’t speak on the music industry specifically.

Bambi: Apologies, I think something got lost in translation or I misspoke. I don’t condone unprovoked bullying. What I meant was some people have the capacity to rise above negativity, but I find that very challenging and in opposition to my natural tendencies. I don’t start shit but I’ll end it.

EN: Oh yeah, I got that part of it. I didn’t think you were condoning it by any means. I suppose I was just thinking aloud that sometimes rising above the negativity isn’t enough to make the situation cease. I know a lot of people who try to and then slowly get sucked back into being picked on. And it’s really a shame.

Bambi: Agreed. When you encounter people that do fucked up shit I think most decent people struggle between rising above (which is often in their own best interest) and fighting against in hopes that no one else has to suffer the same bullshit.

EN: Do you think the general public would be surprised at how nasty individuals in the music scene can be to each other behind closed doors? I imagine some people’s heroes are absolutely despicable people when in private. It’s scary.

Bambi: I don’t think anyone is surprised about how low and despicable people in the music industry can be. I do think they’d be surprised by some of the people perpetrating though. I think it’s pretty common that when some is really into an artist’s music that they get a feeling that they know or understand them on a more personal level. Often they feel they have faced similar challenges or feelings as themselves. So it can be a hard pill to swallow that someone you look up to, someone who has the emotional empathy to convey musically what you feel could possibly be a shitty person.

I mean how could a dude who has the ability and courage to see corrupt shit in the world and call it out possibly steal money from someone they work with? How could someone who’s written songs about love and heartache possibly mistreat a woman? How can a dude who raps about street shit possibly be a coward or snitch in actual life?

EN: Has experiencing some of the industries underbelly made you appreciate those that actively try to be transparent in themselves more?

Bambi: Yes, for sure. Like I said I was very hesitant to get involved with FilthyBroke after my past experiences. But Michael was persistent and proved himself trustworthy and I’m glad I took the gamble because it’s allowed me to work with some awesome folks and restored my faith in people quite a bit. Big shoutouts to Balam Acab, Molly Drag, HotScience, and of course yourself who have all been great to work with.

EN: Do you feel like your taste in music has expanded or evolved since you started working alongside Michael at the label? Because I imagine you hear a ton of things you may not have been exposed to otherwise.

Bambi: Absolutely. Left to my own devices I just listen to rap. So working with FBR I’ve grown to appreciate and enjoy a much larger variety of genres and musicians that I would not have discovered otherwise. So it’s been good! Although, sometimes Michael plays real weird shit I just can’t vibe with…like Ween.

EN: I support all good hearted potshots at Michael and especially at Ween in this interview.

Have you found that listening to different genres has made you appreciate things about rap even more too? I spoke about this with my other writer before. We both feel like branching out into other things has helped us appreciate and understand what we like about hip-hop even more as well. It’s weird that way.

Bambi: I get what you’re saying. I mean, honestly? Sometimes after listening to other stuff for a couple hours it all starts to blend and sound the same to me. Where as I can listen to hip hop exclusively for weeks on end and never get tired of it because there’s such a broad spectrum. It’s just personal taste, what speaks to me, I personally have yet to figure out the specifics of why though.

EN: On another note, I was looking at the cover for the new Hot Science project FilthyBroke was involved in releasing. That cover is phenomenal. And I know that you were the one behind that, And a bunch of other really cool visuals the label has put out. When did you start getting involved in the design aspect of things?

Bambi: I loved drawing when I was a kid, my grandma was big into music and art and I grew up around a lot of graf dudes so I’ve always been around creative types. But it wasn’t until getting involved with FBR when I started doing CD and j-card layouts. As I learned and got better at using adobe, I moved into promo flyers and videos, etc. And finally this latest Hot Science cover art, I’m hella hyped how it turned out and he was awesome to work with.

EN: That’s awesome, I think you definitely have a knack for it. How did the concept for the Hot Science cover even come together? It looks like layers of paper cutouts. I’ve never quite seen anything like it before.

Bambi: Thank you Dustin. Michael came up with the general concept, to be honest I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pull it off, it’s definitely the most involved out of all the projects I’ve done so far. I hand drew the illustrations separately and then scanned them into adobe to layer them. I also did the animation in photoshop because I wanted it to look kind of like stop motion.

EN: Fuck, that’s definitely what it was reminding me of! It’s like one of those stop motion paper-figure films, but like, the Tim Burton version of one. In album cover form. Did you enjoy tackling something more ambitious like that?

Bambi: Nice, that’s the feel I was going for. It’s a dope album and I wanted to do Sam’s (Hot Science) music/work justice and make sure it was reflective of the vibe he was going for. Again, he was great to work with and really down for whatever so I absolutely enjoyed the project. Whenever I take on something new it’s always nerve racking, this is was no exception. But I am really happy with how it turned out.

EN: Is design something you hope to keep being a part of going forward with the label? Has it become something you’re excited to keep working at and improving in?

Bambi: Definitely. It can be somewhat stressful to do creative work under a deadline but it’s fulfilling to do art for a purpose and not just fun. Also I get paid for it which is nice. Every project we do I learn new skills, I’m hoping to get to the point where I can do proper videos as well.

EN: Have you done much video work in the past or would that be a much newer avenue of expression for you? You mentioned doing a bit of video bump work, but not to what degree.

Bambi: Nah. I’ve done little 30/60 second promo bumps. Just saying, I’d like to eventually get to a point where I have developed the skills to do some full on video work. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, was just speculating on long shot goals.

EN: Have you further investigated the use of Craigslist Missed Connections as the modern preferred artistic medium?

Bambi: [Laughs]! (I should’ve seen that one coming). I still check it out from time to time. And, yes, it’s still entertaining and heart breaking as ever. Some people really bare their souls in the MCs, and some of their soles are creepy as fuck.

EN: [Laughs]. Okay, but in all seriousness: if you could design album art for any artist in the world, who would it be and what sort of concept would you approach them with?

Bambi: Damn, that’s kinda tough one. Kool Keith would be ill, could do some weird illustrative shit, like Animalia, Graeme Base style but with more adult content (obviously). AC/DC would be cool as fuck also, but I’ve got no idea what I’d do on that one

EN: I think we’re at the point of rapping this up now, if there’s anything else you’d like to throw in then now would be the time to do it!

Bambi: I just want to give a huge shout out and thank you to all the people over the past year and a half that have been supportive of me both personally, and with the label…you guys are fucking awesome. To you, Dustin, thank you for offering me this opportunity and for being a gracious and patient interviewer. Finally, to anyone that thinks I was speaking on them in this interview, I probably was. And if that’s an issue for you, I don’t have anyone blocked online, my phone number hasn’t changed and you know where I live..any time motherfucker.

EN: Thank you as well.

Album Review: ANKHLEJOHN – The Red Room

by Rajin

ajtrr

8.5/10

Perhaps as a response to the oversaturation of syrupy pop-trap that has had hip hop in a chokehold for a bit too long, it seems like over the past year underground rap has been making something of a return to what made hip hop so appealing in the early-to-mid-’90s. We aren’t seeing artists trying to recreate boom bap; rather, artists have been capturing the essence of ‘90s rap and adapting it for modern times, effectively resuscitating an approach to the music that appeared to be extinct for two decades. For the most part, artists have been looking to early material by artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas for inspiration. What we haven’t seen very often, though, is a young artist looking to Brotha Lynch Hung and Esham.

That is, until now.

Hailing from Washington, D.C., up-and-comer ANKHLEJOHN is an aggressive, menacing, raspy-voiced emcee set on creating the most intimidating music you’ve ever heard. In the third quarter of last year, he dropped his debut album, The Red Room. This album is a nice and tight 11 tracks long, and barring the last track “Wetter” (which is a fairly self-explanatory title), it is an unrelenting barrage of threats, violence, and vividly dark stories. While many young artists are making music that could fall under the same descriptions, none do so as believably as ANKHLEJOHN does here. There are times on this record where the listener could genuinely become concerned for his mental well-being, and I mean that in the most respectful and best possible way. Throughout the entire run, the listener is given no time to relax. It keeps you on edge, holding your breath the whole time.

The record features haunting, hellish production that even some of the most unforgivingly brutal rappers would have difficulty approaching. It’s got the same sort of blistering cold atmosphere that you could find on a Mobb Deep album in the mid-’90s. For the most part, the production is very boom bap-influenced, with producers HNIC, Camouflage Monk, Viles, and more utilizing the ever-trustworthy technique of chopping soul samples for a large percentage of the songs here. However, that’s not to say that this record stays in that single lane. “Leonadis” sees Ankh rapping over a fiery trap banger, produced by Montana Eclipz, composed of bells and epic orchestral samples. “Original Man” features ANKHLEJOHN and Hus Kingpin trading bars over some of the most genuinely stomach-churning, anxiety-inducing production I’ve heard in years, courtesy of Big Ghost, Ltd. Overall, the album keeps a very dark, moody, and heavy tone to it, which perfectly compliments Ankh’s style.

Lyrically, ANKHLEJOHN’s strengths mainly lie in his ability to paint vivid pictures, and to come up with face-screwing one-liners. To pair with that, his vocals are, quite simply, absolutely gnarly. Ankh’s got a voice that would not have been out of place in a group like Onyx. However, while Onyx spent most of their time screaming in everybody’s faces waving guns, Ankh chooses to speak clearly and threateningly with a rope in his hands. His vocal delivery is still quite brash and abrasive, but he never raises his voice too loudly. By opting for this sort of delivery, he ends up sounding even more imposing. He seems like he draws from his Brotha Lynch Hung influence to casually rap verses depicting ultraviolent scenarios.

Upon listening to this album, one of the most distinctive features are the ad-libs. We live in an era of hip hop where rappers overuse ad-libs to the point where their music is almost unlistenable in many cases. There’s an overwhelming surplus of rappers imitating tires screeching, gunshots, and voicing otherwise random words and sounds. It could be argued that ANKHLEJOHN doesn’t use any fewer ad-libs than these rappers, however, the way he uses them is infinitely more productive. Throughout the album, you’ll hear him growl “sick, sick, sick” as though reacting to his own lyrics. On a track like “Leonadis” the assorted shouts, screeches, laughter, and other ad-libs make him sound almost like he’s having a schizophrenic meltdown and he captured it on record. I can’t say I’ve heard anyone else use ad-libs in this way, and I absolutely love it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this record until a couple of weeks ago, so I’m a bit late, but boy am I glad I found it at all. The Red Room is a definitely highlight of 2017. In this day and age, hip hop needs a little more grit, and even though I’m loving what’s going on in underground rap, I feel the grit is still lacking in a lot of ways. ANKHLEJOHN seems to feel the same way, because he delivered an incredibly raw, gritty, and visceral project with The Red Room. The album is dizzying and beautifully dark, and it’s one that I strongly recommend.