In recent months, California has given us some very good news in music, such as Julia Holter’s albums and the Jamaican escapade of Sun Araw and The Congos. Despite being in the same (or worse) dire financial straits as many European countries, California is confirming itself to be one of the most interesting creative hubs of the moment. It is also one of the most complex, if we take into account how different Death Grips’ music is - in its vital and aesthetic attitude - from the music of Julia Holter or Sun Araw.
Let’s start with one of the most solid aspects of “The Money Store”, which has to do with the connections that can be made with other previous bands with a similar musical—and in some cases, visual—style, allowing Death Grips to lay a solid foundation that isn’t an obstacle for them in expressing their own personality. In this sense, for example, this Californian band’s music has something of the hyper-technical dystopia of Company Flow and Cannibal Ox, but also the front attack (in every sense of the word) of Big Black and the SST label. Of course the influence of 80s California hardcore is also very present, and in fact Death Grips could be interpreted as a band that makes hardcore starting from electronic music. This last point leads us to the next characteristic feature of their music: the influence of hip hop, rave, and even dubstep, (especially, in the last two cases, in their American form). Theirs is less subtle, but perhaps more appropriate for channelling the kind of rage that comes from belonging to the classes that are not only disadvantaged, but rather completely forgotten about in the USA, especially in a bankrupt state like California. In any case, the clearest connections with rave music are still to be found with British bands, like the rave-rock of The Prodigy in “Music For The Jilted Generation” –a title that would fit in perfectly well on this album, by the way—although unlike the British group, Death Grips doesn’t make rave-rock for a stadium, but rather for an isolated basement.
The dry, raw rhythms are combined with distorted synths and a lo-fi aesthetic, as well as a voice dehumanized by countless studio manipulations to achieve a confrontational effect. The effectiveness and impact is multiplied by the short duration of the songs, which last an average of two to three minutes. Although they have declared themselves to be apolitical in the few interviews that they have given, the context marks them as a band that is destined to channel the rage of those who are being steamrollered by the crisis and successive waves of recession. Death Grips deploy a calculated sound artillery that appears to be influenced by the state of paranoia fed by the government and media over the last decade - increased by the episodes of international violence broadcast with a wealth of details in the media in recent years. The songs of “The Money Store” go by without at any time suspending (this is part of their value) the constant state of alarm in which these addictive, and even danceable, songs have been written, combining the state of alert with an implacable state of euphoria that grips the listener. A few years ago, Kode9—under his real name, Steve Goodman– published the book “Sonic Warfare” about the relationship in the last century between sound, noise, and military tactics. The Death Grips album could serve as an example of many of the chapters in the book, or as an appendix-update for 2012.
The sound impact is completed by a striking cover, reminiscent once again of the look of 80s American label SST, but also of the wave of torture porn that had an almost constant presence on mainstream film screens over the last decade, with sagas such as “Hostel” and “Saw”. The cover reinforces the confrontational character of the band without clarifying their point of view. Although in interviews they have rushed to deny that the illustration has a sexist element, due to the androgynous features of the characters appearing on the cover; this shows that they are fully aware of themselves and that they are articulating an audio-visual aesthetic.
Sometime we’ll have to talk about why it was precisely in 2008 - at the start of the crisis - when the previously very active American noise underground closed in on itself almost completely, or at least reduced its presence to the minimum, in favour of hypnagogic pop. It would be interesting to see to what extent the reception of hypnagogic pop has been conditioned by the crisis. However, in the case of the Death Grips album, what interests us is that “The Money Store” –which is only the first of the two albums they have planned for this year– will probably reactivate noise in the USA from a different perspective, close to the song format and influenced by the electronic music of recent years.