Swollen Members: Black Magic

For a band whose name should imply otherwise, Swollen Members' latest album is oddly flaccid.

Swollen Members

Black Magic

Label: Battleaxe
US Release Date: 2006-09-12
UK Release Date: 2006-09-18

Just because hip-hop is independent of the trappings of major labels, it isn't necessarily a guarantee of quality. Swollen Members have produced the latest proof of such a statement, an album called Black Magic that's almost well-produced and slick enough to fool you into thinking it's a fantastic album. The problem is, it's not. Not quite.

On first listen, however, it sounds amazing.

The production is tight. Mad Child and Prevail play off of each other like they've been doing it for years (which they should, because they have). The guests are generally solid. And there's a unity to the album that makes it sound like an album, not just a bunch of songs that Mad Child, Prevail, and third Member-slash-producer Rob the Viking decided to put on a compact disc. Really, it sounds like one of those little underground treasures that you're almost unwilling to share with anyone for fear of widespread acceptance killing some of the magic. So you listen to it again...

...and the Magic disappears all on its own.

You see, it's on that second listen that the holes start to show, the warts lose some of their makeup and become those prominent little blemishes that you just can't, hard as you may try, take your eyes off of. You start to get tired of lines like "Contortionists, swallowers of knives and fire-eaters / Nonconformist performers that wont change, and I won't either" (from the title track) and "I'm higher than Hendrix when he made 'Purple Haze' / I'm amazed / As long as i got herb to blaze" (from "Dynamite"), lines that betray a sort of self-absorption that rappers all too often fall into. By the time you hear Mad Child's hook from "Pressure" ("You can see me on the top / You can see me when we drop / You can meet me on the block we'll stop and talk...") for what seems like the 20th time, it's understandable to be wishing he'd just get it over with and join up with Crazy Town where he belongs.

Now, that's not totally fair, Mad Child actually has some rhyming ability and shouldn't really be mentioned in the same sentence as Shifty Shellshock. Still, the point remains -- the dude just gets annoying after a while, his nasal delivery and constant self-aggrandizement slowly turning from pleasant distraction to nails on a freaking chalkboard as the album continues. It gets to the point where Prevail actually sounds better than he really is (and he's not bad), just because the sound of his voice (not to mention that of guest Ghostface Killah on the excellent "Weight") is such a relief.

The production duties are largely taken care of by Rob the Viking, who does a fine, if unspectacular job. He's very good at setting a mood, allowing the rhymes to take center stage, but still adding melody to the beats backing those rhymes up -- his production on tracks like "Grind" and "Massacre" keep things moving, pushing forward, never over-the-top, but never too laid-back. He's one of the best constantly-mid-tempo producers I've ever heard, so if that's your thing, he's your guy.

Still...the first single from the album is a song called "Put Me On", and Everlast pops by to sing the hook in that gruff Everlast sort of way, and Prevail and Mad Child rap about...well, something or other, and it's all over in four minutes. That's what you remember about it, and that's what you remember about most of the tracks on Black Magic -- they're fine (at least for a while, until Mad Child fatigue sets in), but so what?

That said, Black Magic is still a step in the right direction for Swollen Members after the embarrassment that is Heavy (an album the group won't even bother acknowledging on its web site). In a sense, they're back, back to the sound that got them the audience that shifted so many units in their home country of Canada, back to sounding like they have something to prove, rather than complacently sounding like they've arrived. Now, they just need to take that sound and actually prove something.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.