Man, it’s tough to be DJ Shadow nowadays, isn’t it? The problem with releasing one of the best albums of all time as your debut — as Shadow did with Endtroducing….., a masterpiece of sampling and instrumental hip-hop — is that everything you do afterwards will probably pale in comparison. This rule has certainly held true with Josh Davis, about whom hardly anything has been written (this review included) which hasn’t mentioned his debut (and, in the rare case this happens, his excellent sophomore LP The Private Press usually gets name-checked instead). Even on The Mountain Will Fall, his newest release, Davis can’t escape the past. His transition from a sample-heavy style to an Ableton setup, creating his sounds from scratch instead of morphing existing ones, means that he should be able to carve out new space for himself — but it’s tough to forget what came before.
It’s especially tough to not reference Shadow’s older stuff here, because the music he was releasing around the turn of the millennium is quite frankly better than anything on display here. The Mountain Will Fall is more a collection of haphazard, half-formed sketches than a collection of finished music. The instrumental hip-hop here is lethargic and minimal, two-dimensional in all the wrong ways. “California” limps forward on bass modulation straight from a Centipede arcade cabinet and a quasi-footwork beat that captures none of the frantic vivacity of that genre. “Bergschrund”, meanwhile, weighs down an uptempo half-time beat with flaccid synth distortion, starting on a plateau and moving nowhere as the piece goes on.
Further hindering Shadow’s approach is that when the meekness of his sound works, it’s lifting from other, more innovative artists. “Depth Charge” skulks menacingly, but it does so in the same way the Glitch Mob did in 2010, low-end meanderings taken straight out of Drink the Sea’s playbook. “Pitter Patter” does the same with Bassnectar’s twisted dubstep, willowy keys wrapping around the bass in wholly tired-out ways. Even the best track here, “The Sideshow,” rips off from DJ Shadow himself, straight-ahead instrumental hip-hop grooving to the kind of beats he made 20 years ago.
What’s most frustrating about The Mountain Will Fall is how amateur the whole thing sounds. It’s the kind of spartan hip-hop people who don’t know more about audio engineering or plugins might make, rudimentary music not befitting Shadow’s obvious expertise in electronic music production. The most damning part of Shadow’s career is that his first two albums are still more innovative in 2016 than his new music. The reason Endtroducing….. will continue to be brought up is because it still brings something exciting to the table, a mastery of cohesion and beat splicing that the man hasn’t come close to equalling since. If, 50 years from now, all we remember from Davis is the first decade or so of his career, that might not be a bad thing.