The day to day. The nine to five. Clocking in and clocking off. The everyday monotony of working life. Most of us have probably experienced that feeling in some shape or form. The daily grind of work, eat, sleep, repeat. Even so, spare a thought for the night workers. Those that experience the dispiriting, numbing feeling of the graveyard shift where day becomes night and night becomes day. This is exactly the situation that Vex Ruffin found himself in that prompted the making of his new album, Conveyor. With the late night shifts and the uniform tedium coupled with the distinct absence of a decent night’s sleep, Ruffin quickly found himself in a state of flux. With no real idea of how to change his situation he knew he needed an outlet to get him through another arduous shift. That turned out to be this, his second album and second for renowned hip-hop label Stones Throw. The title of the album aptly referring to the conveyor belt effect of being stuck in a rut with little idea of how to break the cycle.
Vex Ruffin’s debut was an intriguing yet ultimately patchy affair. Much of the press for that album focused on the fact he considered himself to be an untrained punk musician who framed his punk and post-punk stylings around rudimentary hip-hop beats and, as such, he was painted as something of an oddity on the Stones Throw roster. However, the music itself, rather than feeling like a novelty, showed flashes of a unique mind at work. When he found the winning formula, the music was genuinely arresting as he took genres, and spliced them together to create his distinctive sound. However, while the ideas were clear, the absence of enough hooks to maintain a whole album and his obvious musical limitations meant that the album came across as a little too one-paced.
Happily, Conveyor rectifies many of the issues of his debut. The sound is much fuller and more rounded. The years of playing live have certainly seen him improve as a musician. He now seems to have a better understanding of himself as an artist and how to execute his vision. The beats are tighter, and there is far more variety on the record with Ruffin painting with a subtle palette using more light and shade. The album still sees him approach punk and post-punk with a hip-hop mentality, but he also incorporates dub, house, jazz, and psychedelia. While the lyrics may try to evoke the weariness of the day to day grind, the fresh, individualistic backing acts as the perfect counterpoint.
After an experimental opening, first song “3am” perfectly encapsulates the tedium and repetition of a night shift. The beats and the keyboards may be rich and bright but they still have a repetitive, mechanized quality to them. The intoned refrain of “wake up and do it again” sums up the routinized working experience proposed by the album title. “The World” binds an incessant, heavily treated keyboard riff with sounds and noises that he expertly pitches and lobs into the mix. It exudes confidence demonstrating perfectly the forward strides he has made as an artist, something which extends to his singing.
At times, on his self-titled debut, his one-dimensional singing tone could become wearisome. Often his voice came across as a low, dronier mix of Sister of Mercy’s Andrew Eldritch and the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce but lacked the subtleties of either of them. Here his voice contains much more variation as if he has more trust and conviction in his ability to carry a song. The finest example of this is on “The Balance” where he provides the perfect foil for Fab 5 Freddy’s old-school rapping. Ruffin pulls off something of a coup in enlisting Fab 5 Freddy for his first musical project in almost 30 years. Freddy brings the Downtown 80s NY vibe to proceedings giving it a classic hip-hop feel. “Front” is more surprising still, marching with bravado like a swaggering, trippy cut from an Ian Brown solo record. The danceable beats coupled with the rhythmic, driving bassline gives it a definite baggy, Madchester vibe with Ruffin’s vocals allowed to trip and drift in a more psychedelic direction.
Elsewhere on the album, Ruffin shows off his ability to incorporate all manner of different influences but retain the overarching, congruent feel of the album. “The Calling” is introduced by vivid, breezy jazz brass before giving way to a more dancehall vibe. “Own Land” puts a hip-hop spin on the danceable, proto-industrial sound of Cabaret Voltaire. While “Let You Down” rumbles along, carried by an updated New Wave keyboard line. The album concludes with the more funereal dirge of the title track. Initially, it seems like Ruffin is resigned to his fate with lines like “I’m still here / It doesn’t really matter” but the closing refrain of “I guess what really matters is what’s inside” suggests that despite the late night shifts, the monotony of the every day, it’s who you are that’s important.
Despite the plethora of differing styles on Conveyor, at no point does it sound like an artist pilfering different styles for his own ends. Rather this is an artist who has absorbed his various disparate influences to create his idiosyncratic sound. The album works as a unified whole with the disillusionment of the daily trudge of working life acting as the connective tissue that runs through the songs. With that in mind, it’s doubtful he’ll be clocking on for his nightshift anytime soon.
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