Washington DC

REVIEW

Tony Kill - Love High Speed

By Phillipe Roberts

A genre-less expanse of frayed ideas, Love High Speed is a series of sonic detours taken with giddy abandon. Conducted by Washington D.C.-based artist Tony Kill, the EP presents seven smeared tracks that play right into the enigmatic presentation of their creator, offering little to no clues as to who, or what, we’re listening to beyond fragmented voicemails, clipped field recordings, and twisted singing that phases in and out of audibility. Let the constant distortion wash over you for the first listen, however, and you find yourself in a rich sonic world that makes a virtue out of misdirection. It keeps ambitions high even as the fidelity crawls deeper and deeper underground.

In contrast to the rest of Love High Speed, opener “Dolin Blanc” whistles its way in and keeps things smooth, much like the sweet vermouth that serves as its namesake. A sensuous bassline rumbles under gently splashing drums before dislocating from the groove entirely, playing against ambient swirls of guitar as the scene dissolves away from the pleasant morning reverie. Suddenly, a pen scratches out a signature, and a desk attendant asks if you need help with your bags. You’re fully checked-in to his surreal hotel now, and Tony Kill is free to really let loose for some twisted fun. Because for all of the sweetness and order of “Dolin Blanc,” it’s the rough-hewn weirdness of the rest of the EP that allows Tony Kill to really shine, unhinged from the expectation of providing anything for you to comfortably grip onto.

With the bouncing bass from “Dolin Blanc” still present as a holdover, Tony Kill begins his descent on “Heaven Sent,” charging through church organ swells with a chorus of Tonys proclaiming “You’re Heaven Sent” ad nauseum. Other indistinguishable vocals pour in, crying out with a kind of impassioned religious ecstasy that crashes over the main vocal in waves–a brilliant effect that sounds like watching someone have a mental breakdown in the middle of Sunday service.

Crafting these sharp moments of emotional tension is something that Tony Kill does remarkably well across the EP. Particularly so on “Drive,” where distorted shouts pile on top of a screeching guitar solo, which mellows out into a light, bluesy twang, before erupting again in chaos in a perfect mirror of the lyrics–“Intruder alert / Intruder alert.” But with all of this dissonance, Tony Kill isn’t afraid of a satisfying groove. Like the aforementioned “Dolin Blanc,” much of the EP ruminates on stretching simple ideas out into flavorful instrumentals. From the undeniably catchy krautrock pulse of “Gotta Turbo (Truck Stanley),” which almost sounds piped in from a Stereolab or Broken Social Scene rehearsal, to the industrial throb and burbling vocals of “I Am This Close,” it’s clear that Tony Kill knows exactly where to turn on the head-nodding charm.

Love High Speed ends with the instrumentally slight and vocally dissociative “Anyone.” Tony unspools a yawning manifesto, “I don’t fear anyone,” just twice over a creeping groove that hardly shuffles past the one minute mark. Thought it follows the disorienting, dubbed-out odyssey that is “Suddenly Unknow Everything,” “Anyone” feels like the perfect place to conclude his latest adventure–fearless and unphased, laughing in the face of any potential detractors before they even get a chance to respond. Love High Speed keeps you on your toes–and is well worth the disorientation–but don’t expect any congratulations from Tony for making it through to the other side. He’s above it all, distinctly unimpressed that you’re finally on his level.

REVIEW: Sir E.U + Tony Kill - African-American Psycho

Raquel Dalarossa

I first heard DC rapper Sir E.U on Rob Stokes’ album from earlier this year. That release, a collection of soul and R&B-influenced indie rock, featured the rapper in two songs and, incidentally, was co-produced by Tony Kill. Perhaps that was the project that brought the two artists together, a stroke of serendipity that would lead to the creation and release of their ten-track album, African-American Psycho.

Whatever the circumstances that originally forged this union, the meeting of their minds feels momentous for both the rapper and the beat maker. No doubt they’ve individually dabbled in the experimental before—Sir E.U, for example, recently put on a 25-hour performance—but this feels notably different from any of their previously released material. African-American Psycho plays like a loose concept album, and together, Sir E.U and Tony Kill confidently push boundaries within and outside themselves, without much care for whether you’ll be able to follow them into their new territory.

Truly, the record feels like a psychotic breakdown, mixing electronic production with bleak beats that create an at times subtle, at others overt, but almost always present feeling of distress. The distorted, overblown treatment on everything from vocals to percussion makes it hard to understand the discrete elements in each song, which is part of the trick; tracks like “Let Me Tell You About My Dog” and “No Sex” are loud, overbearing, and confusing. But the production also lends itself to the frantic, almost manic tone of the album as a whole.

Sir E.U’s vocals mostly serve the beats, but his virtuosic ability to mold his own voice and inject tricky emotions into it—or erase all emotion from it—make him a standout. In “Ultra,” his erratic mumbling adds a strangely smothering effect to the propulsive beat, while in “Lower Self (For Freaks Only),” his voice sits in a low, sinister register uncomfortably close to the ear, and he takes shallow gasps for breath as though his lungs are being slowly crushed. In “No Tax,” which features LeDroit and Nappy Nappa, unintelligible vocals are layered atop one another to the point that it feels schizophrenic.

Even the most danceable track, "Cha," feels dense and busy, and Sir E.U seems to lose steam by the end of it, his vocals fading into the background. Hearing this, combined with their contributions to the Rob Stokes album, makes African-American Psycho feel like even more of a feat. It seems these two can do pretty much any genre they please, and it's hard to say where their ideas will take them next.

REVIEW: Rob Stokes - Live at the Heartbreak Hotel

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Raquel Dalarossa

There’s not much to be found online about Rob Stokes. Aside from a Bandcamp and an Instagram, information about the musician and artist seems hard to come by. But as it turns out, Stokes is a formidable figure in the Washington, DC indie circuit, where he runs Medium Rare, an initiative that sees Stokes recording, producing, and engineering music for other artists, putting out tapes, as well as curating events. Amidst all of that, the Pittsburgh native has found the time to put together his own album.

Live at the Heartbreak Hotel threads together a background in jazz, a budding career in beat-making, and an easygoing approach to experimentation. It feels like the thematic counterpart to Stokes’ EP last year, Love Was Made for These Times, though the lyrics are not the centerpiece in any of his work (especially given the effects often applied to the vocals, turning them more into instruments than deliverers of actual words). What comes to the fore immediately is how rhythmically driven his songs are.

There’s a lot of variation within these ten tracks, but they meld together beautifully. “Blue” is a soulful slow jam heard through a psychedelic lens, while “In the Cut” is a laid-back guitar-pop dream, ambling along like a summer’s day on just a little bit of acid. Songs like “Space” and “Sharks in the Pond” feature acoustic guitar for a folksier effect, but a lively bass and percussive backdrop keep the groove going. Meanwhile, DC-based rapper SIR E.U features on two jazzy R&B tracks, providing fuzzy but nimble verses that provide a propulsion to balance out Stokes’ mellow singing.

All throughout, even when the tempo goes up, the vibes stay pretty relaxed. It’s easy listening that can find itself in a lounge in the ‘60s or at a jazz club today. And really, that’s what sets Live at the Heartbreak Hotel apart: it feels all at once weird, and classic.

PREMIERE: ESHOVO - Listening or Of Empathy and Echo

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Raquel Dalarossa

For a long time, music has been about prolificity. Even outside of art, we all know that staying relevant and staying profitable is very simply about staying productive. But when “get shit done” is the mantra of the day, how much do we sacrifice not only in substance but in significance? What meaning and longevity can we expect from the shit that we make?

Eshovo Momoh’s Listening or Of Empathy and Echo feels like it’s very much about both substance and significance. In fact, it’s right there in the title: empathy, or finding meaning through compassion, and echo, or the ripples that become a legacy. The ten tracks are only one component of a larger body of work—they accompany a book by the same name, of which only 30 handmade copies were sold. As I haven’t had the opportunity to experience the book itself, I’ll be honest and say mine feels like a fragmentary understanding of the work, but the music certainly stands up on its own.

The book is described as “a series of disjointed transcripts developed out of 2.5 hours of audio recorded interviews conducted in December 2016 by friends of the artist,” while the audio component is said to be “developed out of memories, conversations and possibly interviews.” Indeed, the album often plays like a dream. Though Eshovo’s work has always had an experimental flair, this feels like a distinct evolution from previous albums like 2013’s In Neutral or 2016’s #000000, though his work on last year’s Night in Reverse EP is very indicative of the lo-fi and minimalist electronic qualities found on Listening. Tracks like “who knows” and “knee jerk” even have a Steve Reich-ian character with beats that sound like tape loops and wordplay that relies heavily on repetition. These techniques help to zero in on specific emotions without needing much context. The contrast between the two songs—“who knows” is sludgy while “knee jerk” is more steely—also serves as a great example of how Eshovo deploys sonic qualities to amplify the tone of the work: the former is listless while the latter is restless.

Many of the tracks play with his vocals coming in and out of focus, or tempo speeding up and slowing back down again. "Disjointed" feels like an apt description, but only to an extent, as a through line becomes more and more discernible. In between tracks we hear what seems to be audio from a child’s birthday party (a baby crying, moms chattering); meanwhile, “not faculty” is anchored by a famous H. Rap Brown speech about the ubiquity of white nationalism. These short glimpses into memories and histories start to feel instructive of the “echoes” that our individual past experiences might generate within ourselves. Then, closing track “x it strata” flips to a forward-facing perspective, as Eshovo raps, “Trying to plant the right seeds…and it might grow, and it might flourish, and it might last.” It leaves a lingering question: how do our actions today create echoes for the future?

I’ve wondered a lot, since my first listen through this album, about the marks that our pasts leave on us versus the marks that we might leave behind. While the time and craftsmanship that went into this work leave no doubt of its substance, that lingering feeling is the rarer thing to find these days: art that leaves its own mark behind.

REVIEW: Dove Lady - F

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Phillipe Roberts

Tossing out one last release only hours before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, Dove Lady slide into home plate with three records under their belts for 2017. For most acts, a breakneck pace like that would suggest a “golden year” burst of creativity, a flash-in-the-pan outlier. But with 20 EPs to go in their crusade to drop one for each letter of the alphabet, Dove Lady seem to be revving up, trying to take the rest of their marathon at full steam. Even if they maintain that three-a-year pace and drop any detours like last year’s numerical swerve One, the DC duo are looking at at least 6 more years of charging towards that finish line.

But the thrill of the band’s evolution, the thumping, oxygen-flooded heart of those heady ambitions, comes down to pure mystery: what kind of band will Dove Lady be at the end of all this? Song by song, Andrew Thawley and Jeremy Ray are engaged in a game of musical pointillism, brushing a few new dots onto a canvas that, as of EP F, we’re still seeing up close. Years from now, when we stand back at the close of EP Z, what sort of cohesive image will (or could) emerge from the expanding cacophony of genres spilling out of these two?

And yet, like all of their previous works thus far, F is an album obsessed with moments, cohesion be damned. Dove Lady sinks their teeth into melodies with a uniquely rabid dedication to impulsive leaps in songwriting logic. No idea is safe or sacred. No song too pretty or catchy to escape a little bit of mutilation. At its furthest extreme, this philosophy coughs up a real head-turner on “Education Soul Connection.” Chopped up, spidery funk-rock riffing rides down the scales into a blend of gooey, yearning psych-rock reminiscent of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, before growing a pair of legs and hoofing it off into oblivion with a passage that pairs a Cash-style western drum shuffle with an explosively jagged math-rock lead guitar line. By the time the dust settles in your ears, you’re halfway through noise anthem “Volleyball, Volleyball Star Captain,” shaking it to a sweaty, palm-muted riff and the titular chant for the cartoon superhero you never knew you needed.

For all the muscular shredding and complex time signature noodling to be had on F, the EP is not without its quieter, more meditative moments. Opener “You Are All My People” is their most convincing attempt at lo-fi ambience so far. Looped piano, field recordings, and scrapped, Gamelan-style guitars squash, bend, and reverse into an immersive digitized swamp, saturated with humid texture à la Deerhunter. And the back half of “Let It Shine,” where the band quickly trades in the more anthemic opening for a slinky doo-wop waltz, soothes even as it theorizes that “acceptance is a sore thing.”

But on that slippery final track, “Occupation,” Dove Lady gel into their finest moment, peppering spoken-word monologuing about the wave of nationalist fear-mongering spreading across the country over synth chops and a diseased-sounding, moaning chorus, mocking the new-wave schmaltz of U2’s “With Or Without You” with both a wry grin and a heavy heart. It’s pop gone awry for a country lost at sea. Dove Lady are leading us somewhere, the map held tightly to their chests. Breadcrumb by breadcrumb, dot by dot, they challenge us to enjoy the pit stops, to see one color at a time. And so far, it’s working.