There is just something about instrumental hip-hop that makes it the choice accompaniment to a cold winter day. It could be its ability to fit into nearly any situation since it typically does not feature lyrics. And it could be the fact that, now at least two years in a row, dope instrumental records have dropped when the temperatures dip below the freezing point, at least that’s true here in New England. Last year, we were treated to the stellar Standing on the Shoulders of Giants from relative newcomer Metaform. To many, that record came out of nowhere and dropped an epic piece of sampling on our hands. And now, in 2009, we have something different, though in the same musical realm, from DJ Signify. His latest, which comes our way with much anticipation via Bully Records, is a 16-track near-beat-masterpiece called Of Cities. And while the visually enticing cover might steal your attention at first, the music contained within, engineered by the criminally underrated Joe Beats, is sure to take hold of your attention and not let go… until you hit the stop button, of course. But there’s a stronger chance you might hit the repeat button instead.
The aural journey begins with “The Sickness”, an introduction to Signify’s droning, musty lair of sound. A repeating note leads the track before fuzz, bass, and industrial drums transition into something grander as percussion samples loom overhead. It all amounts to what feels like the beginning of a walk through a haunted mansion filled with zombies, ghouls, and anything else that might possibly frighten you. But, as soon as you feel situated, it all falls to pieces and only the drums remain as a piano creeps back in. Then, the fog lifts and you’re back at the door of the house as the blend of textures sweep about. So is “The Sickness” Spooky? Of course. And is it Mood-setting? Very much so. But is it a fantastic song? Hell yes. And it’s also an excellent means of setting you up for the smoggy factory-town of “Low Tide”, which features Aesop Rock, who whistles and rhymes effortlessly through the track. As expected from his work of late, Aes knocks it out the box before he asks you “how low is your lowest low tide?”
If you aren’t hooked by this point, chances are you may never be as this one-two punch is absolutely the strongest on here. Though, to be fair, Of Cities‘s fire never goes out. The next 14 songs are just as solid except for one interlude, the sixth one, that is essentially just a drum beat that loops until the final killer track, “Hold Me Don’t Touch Me”, which is hands-down one of the album’s catchiest joints. Every interlude before it, and there are five of them, offers more in the way of setting some kind of tone. Whether it’s “Interlude 5” sounding its church bell before “Bollywood Babies” or the creaky piano of “Interlude 3” leading into “1993”, they just carry more weight.
But that being established, the true meat on Of Cities is found in the actual songs, like the aforementioned “1993”. To call that track brilliant might be a little too basic. It’s pure hissy bliss as Signify’s trademark dusty drums takeover to bang behind place-trading pianos and horns, both of which are perfection. If anything, it sounds like the equivalent of a New Orleans funeral chopped and sampled through a musical smoke machine. And that’s all before the strings arrive and mix with a creepy vocal sample repeating “I’m not as crazy I used to be.” It is truly something to hear, particularly on headphones that can handle Signify’s unbelievable drums. Hell, every track on here bangs harder than they should thanks to his punchy beats. Take “Vanessa”, for example. It’s essentially a barrage of noise thanks to Kevin Shields-esque walls of sound before transforming into a droning minimalist piece. But it’s the booming bass drum and knocking snare that take “Vanessa” to another level. Other tracks fitting that description include the thunderous “Costume Kids” and the darker-than-dark “The Gods Get Dirty”.
It would be a grievous error to not say Of Cities has a glaring weakness or two. If you’re not accustomed to gritty instrumental albums, this one might take a few listens to grasp and appreciate. Otherwise, it could slip into “background music” territory for the impatient. Also, Signify is a very drums-driven producer, which could lead some to throw out the criticism that this record lacks variety. However, as alluded to earlier, the drums are what make this album. As dope as the synths, vocal samples, and Aesop Rock guest spots are, the boom-bap supplied on here seals the deal. After you hear it for yourself, no matter how many listens it takes to get acquainted, you will agree. Of Cities is dusty and covered in dirt and grit that crackles and pops through each song. It’s also mellow yet banging, primed both for headphones and a killer soundsystem. But, most importantly, it just might be the best new release of 2009.
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// Notes from the Road
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