El-P: High Water

Stefan Braidwood

Quite simply, whether you're a Matthew Shipp groupie, a Def Jukie or even a Roc soldier, you need to hear this record, as it's probably the biggest step forward for hip-hop as a musical art form since Endtroducing.


High Water

Label: Thirsty Ear
US Release Date: 2004-03-09
UK Release Date: Available as import

Raw. If I had to sum up El-P's persona and influence within hip-hop in one word, it would be raw. He plugged the noise back into the music where the Bomb Squad left off, he gave Vast & Vordul an interstellar junkyard of twisted guitars to flow over on The Cold Vein, his solo LP was an explosion of enraged noise, and a friend once described listening to his Company Flow material as "like being beaten up on bad drugs, in a good way". No Pepsi sponsorship, no R&B singers, no collaborating on a single to give Ms. Spears "that underground edge". Raw.

Raw is not the first word that comes to mind with the Blue Series Continuum, despite their excellence at improvisation and determined experimentation with all kinds of musical texture, as best displayed recently on the David S. Ware String Quartet's gorgeous Threads. This encounter of brutality and finesse did, however, have a certain inevitability about it, and expectation has been running very high since the "Sunrise over Bklyn" was put out on vinyl late last year. The Continuum had already put out an entire album in collaboration with a hip-hop artist/producer, DJ Spooky (the occasionally sublime but overall too murky and mechanical Optometry), dabbled in hip-hop rhythms on Nu Bop and had their nominal leader, keyboard phenom Matthew Shipp, collaborate on an album with the notorious Anti-Pop Consortium.

As to El's own wrenching soundscapes, with their sudden surges of noise, complex interweaving of multiple samples and vocals, and swift changes in mood, they always retained at their core an affinity with the free jazz spirit, not to mention the agenda of sonic experimentation, of the Continuum (here present as a six man outfit, with stalwarts Shipp, Parker, Campbell and Brown augmented by Daniel Carter on reeds and flute, and Steve Swell on trombone). The music on this CD suggests their encounters in the studio fed off their joint strengths intuitively, two aims combining as one to create something truly new, an evolution into something other.

El-P has taken his beats-n-samples skeletons of tracks and welded them so seamlessly to the delicate emotional skein of the Continuum's improvisation (which he conducted, arranged, and produced) that the resulting beast soars to life with a stunning immediacy all of its own. The production is crystal clear and the soundstage huge, but the true achievement here stems from the huge difficulty in being able to tell where musical mastery has become studio wizardry, as the recording has the vitality and sensitivity of a live recording as well as the flawless sound and power of the synthetic. Matthew Shipp playing is as wonderful as ever, dancing on the delicate line between melodic freedom and mechanical vigor; it is only with subtle little touches, like his slightly re-quanticised echo in stereo at the end of "Get Your Hand off My Shoulder, Pig", that El-P tips his hand and the listener is left suddenly uncertain as to which parts, if any, of the recording are raw and undoctored. Magic.

Starting and ending with short, pretty trad-jazz vignettes with {Yesterday} in their titles, the roughly 40 minutes in between are a sonic joyride; from the cinematic space and predatory trombone pulses of 10-minute "opener" "Sunrise over Bklyn", the head-nod-inducing drumming (looped?) on "Get Your Hand off My Shoulder, Pig" and the sudden drop of the massive and addictive beat halfway through "Intrigue in the House of India", the catchy and nigh-symphonic "Get Modal", where the implacable William Parker squares up to a rising wave of El's sample juggling, and on to the melancholy climax that is "When the Moon Was Blue", with a recording of El's father Harry Keys's majestic singing carefully parsed into the weave.

Quite simply, whether you're a Matthew Shipp groupie, a Def Jukie or even a Roc soldier, you need to hear this record, as it's probably the biggest step forward for hip-hop as a musical art form since Endtroducing (and best believe I don't say stuff like that lightly). Atmospheric, vibrant, superbly played, brilliantly produced and as complex and subtle as it is accessible; El-P has now proven beyond all doubt that he merits a further word in his description, and that word is: genius. Don't sleep on High Water or, as a close associate of his would say, get busy drowning.

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