There was only one hip-hop album last year that blew me away: Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein on Definitive Jux Records. This dark futuristic masterpiece introduced two brand-new lyrical geniuses to the world: Vast Aire Kramer and Vordul Megilah. They weren't cute or stylish; they brought no bling; they weren't world-class #1 pimps. But they had something else on their side: they were absolutely stunning on the microphone. They're two NYC dudes who attack this fucked-up world with poetry and heart and soul and honesty -- and, after a whole album of downbeat survey, they managed to see some light at the end of the tunnel in the last two tracks. It hit like a brick to the temple and no one else could even think about touching it in 2001.
But the success of The Cold Vein wasn't all just about the lyrics. El-P, the former leader of Company Flow, was responsible for 74 minutes of the hardest electrofunk glitch-hop to ever serve as a backing track for anyone. It was pure content/form time, spooky dubbed-out cyberpunk stuff that complimented the Ox's hardcore worldview like spicy fries compliment a veggie burger. In fact, I claimed (in a review for another online magazine) that The Cold Vein could be released with the vocal tracks stripped from it and hold up as the year's best techno album.
So what does El-P go and do? He calls my bluff -- and the bluffs of a lot of other reviewers who said similar things -- and releases this record, which consists solely of the backing tracks from The Cold Vein with no lyrics on them. The songs are presented in the same order with no remixing and no extra tomfoolery. (Must have been pretty easy to prepare this baby for the racks, huh, El? Damn.)
So: does it hold up as an album on its own? Why, yes it does, if you're like me and you love your techno music tough and harsh and serrated. This is scary haunted doom from the very beginning, when the Sputnik ambient sound (do I hear Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver" in there somewhere?) is penetrated by those damned horns from the original; that movie sample (can't remember where it's from, sounds like James Spader) is just as freaky here as it was on the original: "It's a cold world out there. Sometimes I think I'm getting a little frosty myself." But then the track kicks in, and where you're expecting to hear "My shell: / Mechanical found ghost! / But my ghetto is: / Animal found toast!", you just hear burbling funk from another planet. It's weird as hell, but it holds up, if you can ignore the disappointment any fan of the album is bound to feel when you don't get to hear the classic line "Fuck five, I want 108 mics!"
The album plays out like some very credible and inventive electronic music. "Atom" has all the drama and epic sweep that Squarepusher's Go Plastic album refused to have last year; "Painkillers" is revealed as a doo-wop soul classic that 4 Hero would kill to have done but hasn't ever pulled off; and Richard D. James must be pulling his aphex out in jealousy over the can't-touch-this glitch of "Raspberry Fields". This one was messed-up enough on the original, and it's even weirder here, with guitar noises that go from Big Country bagpipe to Robert Johnson stings and back again. I think this is clearly the best-sounding and most purposeful album of techno music I've heard in a few years. My prediction was complete.
Which is not to say that everything works perfectly on the instrumental tip. These were designed as backing tracks, after all, and some of them just go on too long without the Ox-men's voices. "Stress Rap" doesn't really go anywhere -- but, to be fair, it was one of the weaker tracks on the original. "Scream Phoenix" reveals itself to have been unusually repetitive as a backing track, and I'm not sure that "The F-Word" is anything more than ambient funk in this version. But it's all still better than everyone else's ambient funk.
The only way that this album disappoints is in comparison to the original -- Cannibal Ox are just too disarming with their shattered selves and their desperate cries for love in a world gone frosty for me not to miss their fractured flow. But Cannibal Oxtrumentals is a nice bracer anyway, a great soundscape album that escapes a lot of cliches and sets a new standard for what a hip-hop producer can accomplish. El-P is a force to reckon with behind the decks. I just wish his solo album Fantastic Damage had had the kind of lyrical content that CannOx delivered on The Cold Vein -- he's still a concept man in search of a better way to deliver his lyrical messages. But this album is a light in the tunnel; between this one and Blackalicious' Blazing Arrow, this is turning into a banner year for far-out hip-hop production.
I want this music playing from the loudspeakers at the funeral of Bling-Bling.