Longtime veteran of the EDM music scene DJ Shadow releases his first body of work in 5 years, combining his familiar instrumental hip hop beats with experimentation into the world of more off-kilter rhythms and cinematic and ambient soundscapes. The Run The Jewels-featuring single “Nobody Speak” is what piqued my interest in this project, and while the remainder is almost nothing like it, it was a very interesting listen. Nearly all the tracks are entirely instrumental, although the mood being conveyed through the music fluctuates wildly. A handful are the most similar to Shadow’s past work in that he creates what is simply one of the hardest hitting and most complex possible beats with a variety of drum sounds, leaving the listener to wonder what magic could be created if a rapper with the skill level to match were to utilize the beat.
While many of these are fantastic and will be used whenever a shot of energy is needed, the project truly gets interesting when Shadow attempts to create something with a little more emotional weight behind it. The project diverges once again here, with Shadow either trying to create a collection of sounds which are rather beautiful, or downright terrify the listener. The feeling of adrenaline can be an underappreciated one in the lengthy list of what music has the power to give us. Now two decades into his career, this kind of experimentation was likely necessary and the fact that the creative skill to do it is there is highly encouraging.
Since the beats are so off-kilter, often sounding almost like three or four different tracks were made and then thrown haphazardly on top of each other with no attention paid to rhythm, at times it can take a while for a handful of these songs to click with the listener, but when it finally does, it is quite a unique experience that cannot be found in many other areas of the EDM genre. DJ Shadow has put in the much-referenced “10,000 hours of training” and then some and knows what he is doing here, even if at times the places the music goes seem to come from far out of left field.
Some of these songs, like “Three Ralphs” and “Mambo”, still haven’t clicked with me and still sound like jumbled nonsense – this is likely why the score for this album will be lower than it could be – but I fully expect some of these songs to become favourites in the future. “Depth Charge” is a perfect example of when it all comes together and works against all odds. A nearly 5-minute song playing with a selection of different beats based around a looping selection of 3 note jarring synth stabs would not be a successful song under normal circumstances, but Shadow is not a normal DJ.
Shadow’s musical influences and inspirations seem to come from a wide variety of perhaps unexpected places. While his background in hip hop is still the backbone of the project, providing the excellent rap tracks “Nobody Speak” and “The Sideshow”, the remainder is incredibly diverse. Standout track “Pitter Patter” is based around a vocal sample of what sounds like a children’s nursery rhyme, and “Ashes to Oceans” is a 6-minute track which might contain more sound effects than actual music, such as blowing wind and crashing ocean waves, venturing into the world of ambient sound which could easily serve as the soundtrack to a movie.
Key collaborators Run The Jewels
The more time I spend with this project, I expect to unravel more and more layers of it. As it stands at the moment, while quite a bit is still extremely jarring and confusing – I was compelled to immediately download only about half of it, unusual for an album I enjoyed as much as I did – this is some of the most interesting and innovative music I have heard in quite a while and I look forward to attempting to decode it some more.
Favorite Tracks: Nobody Speak, The Sideshow, Ghost Town, Depth Charge, Pitter Patter
Least Favorite Track: Three Ralphs