Freddie Gibbs, Mastodon, Pile, and more in this week’s music reviews

Cover art detail of Freddie Gibbs’ You Only Live 2wice
Cover art detail of Freddie Gibbs’ You Only Live 2wice

A Hairshirt Of Purpose is an excellent Pile album in a catalog full of them

Grade: A

No two Pile albums are alike, and that’s what makes hitting play on a new one so exciting. Those first few notes open a door to a new world, one that could only be created by frontman Rick Maguire. With Pile, Maguire is fearless, willing to take country and bluegrass riffs and twist them around noisy post-hardcore and art-rock movements. It’s music that is, at times, wildly uncomfortable. But its form matches the intent.

Unlike the albums that directly precede A Hairshirt Of Purpose—2012’s Dripping and 2015’s You’re Better Than This—Pile pulls away from its embrace of loud, chaotic rock songs and swings its weight toward beautiful, downtrodden blues. While it’s not the bluesy stomp and swagger of, say, The Black Keys, Maguire’s playing accentuates his ability to fingerpick, messing with a song’s open spaces and pulling in discordant yet harmonious notes. The result is the most meditative record since Pile’s full-band debut, Jerk Routine, but with a more confident group of musicians at the helm.

Even when he’s going big and working blue, Maguire remains a master of subtlety. The songs here tumble forward, avoiding predictable structures and using vocal phrasings that keep you hanging on his every word. Those moments pop up time and again throughout Hairshirt. “Dogs” expands and contracts effortlessly, while “Leaning On A Wheel” paints a picture of despair through its embrace of the mundane. At a time when it’s once more trendy to declare that rock music is dying, there’s a band like Pile putting lie to that hyperbole and still pushing the form to its outermost limits.

Purchase A Hairshirt Of Purpose here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Mastodon is both progressive and regressive on Emperor Of Sand

Grade: C

Mastodon is, in many ways, heavy metal’s Weezer. With records like Remission, Leviathan, and Blood Mountain, the Atlanta band bought oodles of goodwill from fans of anthemic stoner-sludge. But what followed has seen the band not only shift direction; it’s also made Mastodon’s golden era feel like a distant memory.

Where Crack The Skye went full-on prog, The Hunter and Once More ’Round The Sun were Mastodon’s attempts at writing classic rock songs. Though not without their moments, each release dulled Mastodon’s attack, making it feel like a group of pop songwriters posing as a metal band. And while Emperor Of Sand doesn’t work in full, it offers glimpses at how the band could unite those warring interests.

A song like “Show Yourself” may have a hook ripped straight from a resin-coated ’70s rock record, but it’s still got a propulsive, forward motion that, for as corny as it is, sucks you right in. And when Mastodon is out and out riffing, like it is on “Clandestiny” and “Word To The Wise,” there are flashes of the band that made a genre-defining epic like Leviathan. But for the same reasons these songs work, others stumble. “Steambreather” sounds like the heaviest Pinback song ever—with vocals that even conjure Rob Crow—and closing track “Jaguar God” feels like several different songs forced to become one. Emperor Of Sand is both progressive and regressive, as Mastodon takes two different parts of its past and slaps them together. And while it occasionally works, more often than not Mastodon just sounds confused.

Purchase Emperor Of Sand here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Freddie Gibbs raps like he’s running out of time on You Only Live 2wice

Grade: B+

Freddie Gibbs is a rapper’s rapper, the type of technically virtuosic musician whose sheer, unflagging invention can almost wear your ear down. For those who don’t rap—which are most people, presumably—it can be hard to even keep up with the byzantine, arcing structures of his rhyme schemes, his unconscious breath control, the way he varies his delivery and syncopation to every drum pattern or sample. There are a lot of rappers like this—Black Thought, Eminem, Lupe Fiasco—who strive for excellence via almost objectively measurable categories, which can make the whole affair seem like those guitar aficionados who enjoy shredding for shredding’s sake.

But Gibbs is a little too good to paint as the Yngwie Malmsteen of rap. His masterpiece, 2014’s full-length Madlib collaboration Piñata, off-boarded the record’s mood to a more seasoned stylist, forcing the rapper to work outside the sort of dour, triple-time scorchers he’d typically gravitate toward. Since then, the longtime Tupac and Scarface disciple has sprinkled increasing quantities of Pimp C, Do Or Die, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony into his bars, adding a sense of high-flying melodicism to his characteristic technical showmanship. You Only Live 2wice functions as an absolute firehose of dazzlingly dense verses—it’s hard to imagine him going for much longer than its 30 minutes, though you know he could—as well as a showcase for some of the strange new ground he’s charting. On “Andrea,” the words tumble out at a pained gasp, charting out a wild, jazzy tonal space not unlike Future or Chance The Rapper, while on “Phone Lit,” he skews his voice into a breathy, smeared wash, performatively evoking the blazed romance of the lyrics.

Still, much of the rest of this operates in the same mold as his last record, 2015’s solid Shadow Of A Doubt. It’s tempting to want some sort of grand, dark reinvention here. The title You Only Live 2wice and its unsubtle cover art reference Gibbs’ 2016 acquittal on sexual assault charges in Austria, allegations he addresses with unchecked venom on lead single “Crushed Glass.” In the album’s final moments, Gibbs directly reflects upon his brief incarceration, but the preceding album isn’t some haunted reflection on crime and punishment. It sounds instead much more like an artist stepping back into his old pocket with great relief and delivering the verses he feared he’d never be allowed to. He’s packing even more words in and rapping harder than ever, like his life depended on it.

Purchase You Only Live 2wice here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Wire’s Silver/Lead is an uneven balance of moody intrigue and slow-burning aggression

Grade: C+

Post-punk icons Wire have been on a hot streak as of late, with 2015’s self-titled effort and 2016’s Nocturnal Koreans capturing the spirited antagonism and prickly innovation of the band’s best work. The tenacity of these records was especially gratifying. On songs such as “Numbered” and “High,” Wire pushed back against oppressive forces with its cutting elliptical wisdom, undiluted by time.

Silver/Lead is a different beast. More atmospheric than the band’s recent work and focused on arrangements that unfurl like deliberate, languid meditations, the record is more of a slow burn. That lack of urgency isn’t missed on the title track, a darkness-shrouded taste of metallic noir, or on “Sleep On The Wing,” an evocative tune hewing toward seasick jazz. But other songs sorely need an energy injection. Both the stinging “This Time” and foggy post-punk gloom “Brio” are lugubrious and plodding, which drags down the album’s latter half.

Wire is in better form during Silver/Lead’s first few tracks. “Playing Harp For The Fishes” possesses a grinding keyboard force field and a noisy underbelly that evokes a slow-motion demolition. Concise highlight “Short Elevated Period” is the sort of spring-loaded, electroplated rock burst at which Wire has always excelled, while the fuzzed-out synth-rock of “Diamonds In Cups” offers ominous, gradual decay.

On these songs, Silver/Lead strikes the perfect balance of moody intrigue and saw-toothed aggression. Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t calibrated quite as precisely, which makes for an uneven listening experience. Still, as Wire celebrates its 40th birthday, it’s reassuring to know that the band’s eagerness for experimentalism—and its talent for expressing it in (mostly) sharply honed rock songs—remains as boundless as ever.

Purchase Silver/Lead here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Pharmakon’s Contact is an uncomfortable listen, in the best possible way

Grade: B

Pharmakon’s music is hard to sit with, but that’s by design. For nearly a decade now, Margaret Chardiet has made music under the Pharmakon name—“music” being a general descriptor for the claustrophobic blasts of noise she generates. And while that’s something that could be said of countless artists operating across various genres right now, it’s the way Chardiet’s personality pokes through the din that makes Pharmakon special.

2014’s Bestial Burden was Chardiet’s most personal work yet, as a near-death experience inspired her to use her body’s impermanence as the album’s through-line. Conversely, Contact is all about transcendence, the moments when you push beyond your physical limitations. Where Bestial Burden sounds like a record that is trying to rip through one’s skin, making for a truly uncomfortable experience—that’s meant as a compliment—Contact wages war on the brain and its link to reality.

On “Nakedness Of Need,” Chardiet’s ghastly screams bang against industrial pulses, making for an uninviting introduction, but one that’s nearly impossible to pull away from. It’s both bone-chilling and transfixing. “Sentient” follows, a more hypnotic drone piece that serves as a minor reprieve from the chaos, which comes right back with “Transmission.” Contact vacillates between these two modes, toying with expectations and fluctuating between jagged noise pieces and relatively calming ambience. Like all things Pharmakon, Contact is a challenge, but a worthwhile one.

Purchase Contact here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Hesitation prevents transformation on Goldfrapp’s Silver Eye

Grade: C+

Between the verses of the towering synth-pop ballad “Beast That Never Was,” Alison Goldfrapp murmurs, “I keep something back.” The refrain may as well be a direct instruction to producer John Congleton, who was enlisted by Goldfrapp and Will Gregory to pare down the duo’s seventh studio album. (“We wanted him to take things out that he thought weren’t necessary and he did,” Gregory recently told Rolling Stone.) And there’s a feeling that the long-running electronic duo is holding itself back on Silver Eye, an album that has its beguiling moments, but fails to replicate the dance-floor punch and romantic swoon of Goldfrapp’s ’00s recordings.

It’s not for lack of trying: Silver Eye kicks off with “Anymore” and “Systemagic,” a pair of four-on-the-floor bangers destined to follow “Strict Machine” and “Ooh La La” to song-licensing Valhalla. The impatient vocal hook from “Anymore” (“I can’t wait / I can’t wait anymore”) has “TV spot for highly anticipated gadget” written all over it, and once that’s in your head, it’s hard to imagine the generic come-ons elsewhere in the song (“You’re what I want / You’re what I need / Give me your love / Make me a freak”) launching a person-to-person connection. The meetings of organic and artificial, of yesterday and tomorrow, just don’t generate a lot of interesting tension on Silver Eye. There’s lots of talk about transformation and transcendence on tracks like “Tigerman” and “Become The One,” but the record feels like it’s stuck somewhere in the middle of its own metamorphosis. Aided at turns by Congleton, Bobby Krlic (a.k.a. The Haxan Cloak), Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, and Leo Abrahams, Silver Eye nudges right up to the edge of unexplored territory, before retreating to familiar environs of new wave, krautrock, and industrial.

But where is the glam pomp, the cabaret friskiness, the blood of the “pagan ritual” evoked in the album’s press materials? As ever, it’s in Alison Goldfrapp’s voice, an elastic instrument that melts into and cuts right through Silver Eye’s synthetic soundscapes. It’s also in a more adventurous, mid-album run that concludes with “Beast That Never Was,” passing first through the sci-fi noir of “Faux Suede Drifter” and the sinister “Zodiac Black.” The latter is the album’s one true jaw-dropper in its enveloping atmosphere and sparse percussion, and it’s where Krlic’s influence is most deeply felt. Sure, it could be easily mistaken for a Goldfrapp remix of The Haxan Cloak’s “Excavation (Part 1),” but “Zodiac Black” is also where Silver Eye feels most vibrant and experimental, the siren’s call of Goldfrapp’s voice beckoning the album into the future that previous tracks only imply. Too much of Silver Eye keeps something back. But if “Zodiac Black” signals the next step in the evolution of Goldfrapp, maybe that reluctance will eventually prove to be worth it.

Purchase Silver Eye here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Ice-T’s Body Count returns for a weak attempt at stirring up controversy

Grade: C-

Ice-T very much wants Body Count to sound like a mashup of Black Sabbath, Suicidal Tendencies, and Slayer. How do I know this? Because he literally says so during the spoken-word introduction to “Raining Blood,” the fifth track on Bloodlust, which marks the sixth album by the rapper-turned-Law & Order: SVU star under his thrash-metal guise. Much like LL Cool J, there is now an entire generation that knows the amiable personality as an actor, not rapper, to say nothing of his stint as the shouty frontman for the act that briefly riled President George H.W. Bush with “Cop Killer.”

Of course, Ice-T was never a very strong thrash singer to begin with, as anyone who listened to the group’s early records can attest—including Ice himself. Although it’s kept up a surprisingly steady course of releases, the intervening years since Charlton Heston read the lyrics to “KKK Bitch” to a group of shocked businessmen haven’t added any freshness to the band’s already recycled riffage; there’s more than a few moments on Bloodlust that sound like choruses on loan from Evanescence. For every track that maintains an admirable speed-thrash spirit (“Walk With Me,” “Raining Blood”) there’s another that sounds more silly than rocking, like the cheesy posturing of “Here I Go Again,” a dark metal song as imagined by Roger Corman.

Most of the songs follow the same simple formula: Ice-T yells about some social ill, then swears about how fucked up it is in a very rudimentary manner, all while a chunky midtempo riff wails behind him. It can be pretty funny at points (“All Love Is Lost” features Ice yelping in the silence between short riffs, “I thought you were my friend! I gave you my trust!”), but it can also be almost poetically clumsy, as in the awkward attempt at generating another “Cop Killer”-level kerfuffle with “No Lives Matter.” Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting all that worked up in 2017 about something this hokey.

Purchase Bloodlust here, which helps support The A.V. Club.