Matthew Shipp, Beans, William Parker, HPrizm: Knives from Heaven

[31 July 2011]

By Justin Cober-Lake

Antipop Consortium and Matthew Shipp got together almost a decade ago for an album fetchingly titled Antipop vs Matthew Shipp. Since none of the artists stick to their respective genres (or are easily limited to such categorizations), it probably makes sense that they’re back together again, this time blending jazz, hip hop, and general experimentalism for Knives from Heaven. As before, Antipop’s represented only by Beans and High Priest (now listed as HPRizm); Shipp is joined only by bassist William Parker. The resulting collaboration shows a merger of many ideas in various forms of development, making for an album that’s as fun as it is jittery and wide-ranging.

“Half Amazed A/B” offers one of the album’s most accessible tracks, with a groove that’s not too distanced from something you might hear in a Madlib production. With the track driven by a sax loop, HPrizm and Beans take verses, announcing their gameplan and explaining “the anniversary of real lyricism is now / renew my vows” while one rapper picks up the other’s thoughts.

If that cut works on its straightforward beat and rhymes, “This Is for My Brother the Wind” strips the lyricism down, a few tracks later. The music feels more jittery, full of tics even as the wind smooths on top of it. The lyrical content is simply repetition of the phrase “This is for my brother / The winds shout out to him / Water, earth, ether, and fire / My blood kin”. The track becomes more about atmosphere than about lyrical content, but the vocals provide as much of that texture as the sound effects do. It’s a jarring listen, not because the idea’s original but because the vocals, presented as a centering moment against the backdrop of the music, don’t work as expected and suggest far more than they explain, without clarifying what they suggest.

The track isn’t the album’s best, but it’s emblematic of the disc as a whole. With 20 tracks and a run time of just over 40 minutes, Knives from Heaven is stuffed with ideas, but most of them hit quickly (some in less than a minute) and disappear. Even the transitions vary. Some, like the shift from “This Is for My Brother the Wind” into “Going to Another Place” work almost like different sections of a suite; others have more marked shifts.

Those divisions don’t necessarily mark separate elements of the album. While there are clearly moments that are jazz and moments that are hip-hop, the album maintains a pretty consistent overarching sound of something else. You can find attempts at genre-naming for this stuff but, while most of it isn’t inaccurate, it might be best to avoid the challenge.

Some of the music skitters, some of it pounds, and some of it just juxtaposes sounds. “The Arabic Cowboy John Clint Ameer” offers an example of the latter. Shipp seems to be playing not so much against the MC, but in ignorance of him. Beans moves quickly and aggressively, claiming he can “bring the pain over kicks like Braxton Hicks” before eventually turning to a clipped, stilted cadence, almost as if he’s responding to the music that refuses to acknowledge him.

The cut moves immediately into “Moorish Waltz”, which gets a treatment set to prove two things wrong about its title, turning into a messy electronic pound. It’s hard to read this track as either hip hop or jazz, or, for that matter, a blending of the two. It’s playful, and less of a challenge than a quick stretch of something that could be more demanding.

The fact that the ideas here don’t always get full treatment isn’t a criticism of the album so much as a suggestion that the sketch quality is what the album is about. Quick thoughts, abrupt shifts, and inventive collaborations make Knives from Heaven a listen that’s occasionally puzzling but less intense than a first listen might suggest, and whether because of or in spite of that idea, more fun on repeated listens.

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