Friday, September 07, 2012

The Emerald Empire Strikes Back

With another PAX now come and gone, it seems like as good a time as any to take a look back at some releases from a handful of Seattle's finest. Sea-Town really is nerdcore central, giving us first generation standouts Optimus Rhyme, and later cementing itself in the second-gen geeky hip-hop boom thanks to none other than Karl "Ultraklystron" Olson.

Karl's never been one to shy away from lengthy releases – the fact that he's his own producer means he has no shortage of beats – but the deluxe edition of his early-2012 full-length Animatic took this concept to the extreme. While the "basic" version of the release encompasses a healthy 22-song offering for the very low price of free, the expanded Bandcamp release nearly doubles it. At 38 tracks, the full Animatic makes for formidable review fodder, but even after months of procrastinating I still can't bring myself to do a song-by-song breakdown. Instead I will focus on what the album does right and where it falters with specific attention focused on that core offering.

Opening with the short and catchy "Thesis Statement," Animatic gets off to a sing-songy start. The hook isn't Karl strongest, but the breathless verse delivery speaks to an artist who has certainly changed since the early days of Revision and OSL. It plays well into joints like "OH NO GO GO" and "Tap That Deck," which feature his trademark super nerdy lyricism and lush production with the added benefit of some clever Weezy-style hashtag rhyming. But the release stammers a bit at "Con Rave Two Step" – a song that sees him fall into the old trap of lost syllables and a typewriter flow.

"Bromance Dance" fares better thanks to some added flavor provided by Klopfenpop, but the chorus is a little much even for a song that's obviously played for laughs. "Work It Baby," by contrast, brings us back to a more refined take on classic 'Klystron, all fun and bouncy. "These Days" slows it down, but comes through a bit too heavy-handed to be truly somber. "Non-Contact" misses the mark as well due to a flawed flow (though I do give the man credit for that MacBook Air line), and "In the Lab" suffers simply because of the inclusion of a far superior remix in the supplementary material.

"Saturday," hits hard with some very creative production, but the combination of one man call-and-response and crawling delivery keep it from fulfilling its potential. Backed up by Random, the mournful "City" finally breaks back through, as does the haunting, industrial-tinged "Impossible," which stands out as likely the best example of where Ultraklystron is now as a writer, a rapper and a producer.

"Advice Animal" with Beefy again goes for the weird rather than the resonant and sets up nicely for the brilliantly funky "Fujoshi" and Rai throwback "3 Dollar Jeans." The growly aesthetic Karl's been striving for finally hits in "Game on My Back," which works well against the almost experimental "Unexpected" – yet another joint that shows a more lyrically adept Ultraklystron. "Magic Tricks" slips a bit but still manages to satisfy, and "Lifecycle" sets up the end of the album-proper with an oddly infectious anthem of green living.

"Katawa Tribute" is lyrically simplistic but still tons of fun, and "Minor Internet Celebrity" shines with backup from Death*Star. Closer "Broadcast" does a nice job of encapsulating the split nature of the release – it combines refinement and sloppiness in equal measure – and serves as gateway for 16 bonus remixes, that, as I mentioned previously, sometime manage to best their original iterations.

This is all to say that Animatic is not Ultraklystron's best release, and that's a damn shame because it truly could have been. Tracks like "Tap That Deck" (in various incarnations), "City" and "Impossible" reveal a Karl Olson that's truly leveled up his rap game, but any number of other selections play as noticeably less inspired. I'll caution, however, that this certainly shouldn’t give you cause to dismiss the album outright. Cop the free version to experience some exciting new flavor from your otaku rap hero, and, after that's been digested, decide for yourself whether or not all the bonus remixes warrant a purchase.

Personally, I would've preferred a more concise and cohesive final product, but you have to hand it to Ultraklystron for the sheer tenacity of this collection; it keeps going and going long after lesser rapper/producers would've run out of steam. This ensures that even if you don't exactly dig the current track you can be sure you'll unearth a real gem the deeper you explore.

While most can agree that Karl's lyrics linger on anime allegory and personal experience, his hometown homeboys of Death*Star tend to dwell firmly in the realms of gaming, sci-fi and (cleverly raunchy) sex rhymes. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Debut full-length The Fandom Menace established them as Seattle scene staples, and their uncanny stage chemistry made them the talk of the town's nerdier heads. A New Dope, perhaps unsurprisingly, plays both these elements for bigger laughs and bolder statements.

From C0splay's amazingly bizarre turn on the intro bit Dope refuses to let up… mostly. "Broken Robots" puts Kirby Krackle's Kyle in the mix with C0s, 3P and Bill Beats amid one of the crew's biggest-sounding songs to date, and "Milk Money" massages a slice of classic rock into a hip-hop banger that blends a pair of admittedly nontraditional voices with some iconic swatches of classic rap.

"Any Girl" is an early standout that cements the guys' reputation for skewed musical meditations on romantic entanglement, but the follow-up skit sort of falls flat – killing the inertia that should've powered it into the rock-solid game rhymes of "Social Apothecary." The hits keep coming with the immediately satisfying "Respiration Inhale," which somewhat channels the spirit of fellow Emerald City denizens Southside, its old school second half "Respiration Exhale" and the absolutely glowing "Fifty Dollar Word, Y'all."

Sadly, a mid-album skit again drains the musical energy. Still, the guys bring it back with "Your Mom" – a song that's just horribly, dreadfully offensive in theme and content, but so ridiculously catchy that it can't help but stand as one of the best sex jams in dorky hip-hop history. "Mashiara" is weirdly uneven and doesn't exactly live up to its predecessor, but let's be honest; how could it?

The "Studio Session" skit is another piece of relative filler, and "Sixteen Tons" doesn't shine quite as brightly as many of the album's other selections. "Robot Dance Party Revolution," on the other hand, plays with the Death*Star recipe in a track that's admirable if not always engaging. "As Is" kicks the hook from "Hard to Handle" into an oddly honest piece of nerdy hip-hop, and the second "Studio Sessions" skit is as bit *ahem* easier to handle.

The "Villain of the Day" sequel with Klopf honestly fares even better than the original on some levels thanks to a really sharp beat from Bill, and "The Devils You Know" again monkeys with the Death*Star aesthetic for an unexpected 11th hour triumph. And the album's intentionally ridiculous bonus track? It's… intentionally ridiculous, but also ultimately an unnecessary throwback that tries to recapture the hilarious profanity of "Your Mom" only to fall short. #dickjoke

All things considered, A New Dope is the Death*Star album we wanted and, let's face it, the one we deserved. The trio still represents what's great about the oddly eclectic hip-hop scene of the Pacific Northwest, blending classic rap elements with a punk rock attitude and an ample dose of distinctly modern nerdery.