Thursday, June 30, 2011

Might Makes Right

Maybe it's the beard, but lately I've been in a metal mood. After years of slowing things down, of listening to The Smiths and singing Replacements tunes to my kids in their cribs, I've once again gotten in touch with my inner shit-kicker.

This was a rather fortuitous development, as my recent return to heavier music just happened to coincide with the proper debut album from chaotic Californian clique The BossFights. Those with proper memories will recall that the crew wowed me at last year's Nerdapalooza, and they managed to channel the bulk of that stage energy into their self-titled LP.

"Ctrl_Z" opens the album with fire and fervor. The guys sound amazingly tight with ZeaLouS's lead rhymes and Awkward's smooth chorus weaving between the solid groove of the Juggernaut/Kevonious rhythm and Bishop's metal-tinged hook. The only problem is that the mix feels distant and, at times, paper thin, but while the production sounds rather demo-y the track itself is a marvelous monster.

"Shatterhand," on the other… uh... hand, feels grand, sweeping and weighty. A war(craft) anthem that's actually a subtle cry for peace, it plays well off the more prog-metal style of follow-up "Before The Dawn," a track in which Dr. Awkward shines thanks to appropriately soulful vocals. Sadly, it loses points due to some obnoxious over-modulation on the pre-chorus harmony vocals.

"Eye of the Rising Sun" fares much better. A triumph of lyricism and musical mechanics, it might not be my favorite song on the album, but it's likely the best. With inventive (but never over-the-top) use of a talk box and delicately layered guitar tones, this one is Bishop's song, but the rest of the boys do far more than just pull their weight. "Take it all Away" continues the album's thematic build with an intoxicating blend of soft-spoken lyricism and in-your-face instrumentation. Again, the production feels a bit too mid-rangey for my taste, but its bass line is so engaging that you have to listen hard to notice.

The album's first single, "The Cake is a Lie," certainly wasn't chosen on a whim. Pitch-perfect from top to bottom, it integrates the aggressive prowess of …And Justice for All-era Metallica with the musical acrobatics of Infectious Grooves. Less funk-metal than soul-metal, it's unique and accessible. Especially considering it was written by a group of guys who all look like extras from The Road Warrior.

"Dogfights & Dynamite," by contrast, brings the funk. Another musical highpoint, it all but abandons the group's traditional hip-hop leanings, but still somehow sounds at home on the album. It is followed by "When It Rains," a joint that takes things in a jazzier, more experimental musical direction. It could conceivably challenge the uninitiated listener, but to me it's just another example of The BossFights mastery of pop sensibility even within a distinctly underground framework. Relatable and inspiring, it's easily a personal favorite.

"Conspiracy Theory" takes things quickly back into metal territory, but, to the guys' credit, it's far from jarring. Dual guitars are the song's strength, but the back-and-forth between Z1 and the good Doctor is its heart. Follow-up "Six Feet Under" is the closest thing to a filler track across the album's 15 song arc. Atmospheric but plodding, it's an interesting diversion that mostly forgoes ZeaLouS1's trademark growl in favor of Awkward's ethereal crooning throughout. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, it simply feels a little distant from the album's other offerings.

The BossFights begins its final act with the abrupt melody of "The Banished Prince," a song that boasts and amazingly satisfying verse-to-chorus shift and some quick stops that serve both to punctuate and to power the song forward. Lyrically it's a powerhouse, but the complex interplay between the vocalists and musicians really drives home what superb songwriters The BossFights truly are.

"Beautiful Nightmare" stands out for its delicate instrumentation that borders on folk-metal. Doc probably gives his most earnest-sounding performance of the album and the guitar solo adds an eerie but nonetheless aggro element that would otherwise be missing, but the lack of ZeaLouS1 is certainly noticeable. A delicate transition brings us to the crunchy "3 Days," but a sloppy build causes the energy to wane before Z1's triumphant lyrical return.

"Left for Dead," a track originally included on the band's introductory EP, sounds as thick and resonant now as it did a year ago, and it certainly showcases the band at its most nerd-friendly. An instant crowd-pleaser, it ably makes way for the musical denouement "The Lion's Den." Trippy and groove-heavy, it's an excellent closer with stereo rapping from ZeaLouS1 and Dr. Awkward and a sound that beautifully builds, but sadly fizzles.

The BossFights are a band that, even while occasionally struggling with a consistent sound, possess an indubitable style. Though I, like others, was quick to call it rap-rock shortly after their big reveal at Nerdapalooza 2010, I am even now in the process of refining my premise. Presently I am content to say that The BossFights are instead a new school thrash band. And not merely a thrash band, mind you, but a goddamn excellent thrash band.

Moreover, their self-titled full-length is a phenomenal neo-thrash album. Yes, the predominant form of lyrical delivery is rap and, yes, there are times when the production is thinner and less aggressive than I would've preferred, but the bottom line is in a world where metal has again been relegated to the underground The BossFights stand out as an ideal example of its unique power, innovation and continued evolution. Like its frontman, The BossFights is big and loud, but at the same time subtle and thoughtful. As with any project, there are times on this album where one element or one member falters. The trick is that doesn't seem to faze The BossFights in the slightest.

They are an outfit that is more than the sum of its part, a construct sturdier than its raw materials. The BossFights are a bundle of sticks; at times one may bend, drop a beat or lose a note, but their cohesiveness, the sheer density of their combined strengths, renders them unbreakable. 

A dark fantasy analogue to the sci-fi majesty of the late Optimus Rhyme, The BossFights are a blessed union of traditional instrumentation and hip-hop lyricism. And though it shows the occasional chink in its tank-like armor, though it often recycles the same ending fadeout and sometimes zigs when it should likely zag, that doesn't make their debut full-length any less impressive.

An early frontrunner for my album of the year and a fucking steal at under 10 bones, The BossFights is all that stereotypical rap-metal is not. It is cohesive. It is groundbreaking. It is relevant. And, personally, it's likely the most fun I've had with an album of aggressive but accessible music since the skate rat days of Among the Living and How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can't Even Smile Today.

"You can trim off the waste and what's left? / Excess."


funky49 said...

I'm bringing cash for this at Nerdapalooza.

Z. said...

Wise choice, my friend.