The Year In Death Grips
Even with all of the dick pics and album leaks and label disputes of 2012, Death Grips never had a more tumultuous year than they did in 2013. It was the year they reached new heights of exposure, after the climb in 2012, and found it not to their liking. This was a year of rejection on the band’s part and confusion on everyone else’s part. We were led on strange internet goose chases, watched avant-garde music videos, and stood baffled staring at empty stages. All this as Death Grips permeated pop culture like never before: We saw them backstage at a Beyoncé concert and get a shout-out on Rachael Ray’s talk show. In their most unpredictable move of the year, they released a stunning new album, Government Plates, and all the frustrations seemed to matter less. In a few years we won’t remember any of the bullshit, and 2013 will just be remembered as the year Death Grips made a really good album and gave it to everyone for free. But here in the present, as the year comes to a close, let’s look back at all the weird shit these guys did. Pull up a chair by the fire, pour out a nice glass of bleach, and let’s begin…
The Year In Death Grips was actually pretty succinctly predicted in the first week of 2013 with this lengthy video. "Come Up And Get Me" has no sound for the first nine minutes that it follows Stefan Burnett stalking through the Chateau Marmont, an elegant hotel made to feel more like the Overlook thanks to Burnett's overwhelming presence. The silence is so suffocating that brief moments of sound — a police blotter and the gentle but ominous drone that’s paired with the looped image of a dripping shoe — provide a breath of air. Later, DIY shots the band took of each other handcuffed underwater provide a dangerously apt metaphor for the position they were in then. When the song finally cuts in, it's the same abrupt and thrilling surprise that introduced Government Plates, in miniature.
Aside from being a charismatic celebrity chef, Rachael Ray is a master of condensing a lot of great stuff into a short amount of time. Have you even watched 30 Minute Meals? What she does on her talk show is give her guest a full minute to talk about anything they want. Fred Armisen took the opportunity earlier this year to rep Zach Hill as a "genius" and encourage every one of Ray's viewers to check out Death Grips. Ray excitedly says she'll check it out as soon as the show ends. If you Google Death Grips the first song that you'll find is still their classic "Guillotine," so maybe that's what she heard. All I want for Christmas is to watch your reaction, Rachael (also, what is a budget-friendly way I can spice up my dinner routine?).
The most insane thing Death Grips did this year went mostly unnoticed by people who don't spend time on 4chan arguing about whether Money Store qualifies as essential /mu/core at this point (it does, people). In the dark depths of the internet, Death Grips developed an ARG (alternate reality game); a sort of multimedia scavenger hunt that was spread over strange email addresses, obscure message board posts, creepy locations on the deep web, and encrypted files. It wasn't the first time the fan community got caught up in one, with last year’s yielding the then-unreleased instrumentals of The Money Store. In the end the "No Hands" YouTube videos that launched this ARG led to the “Lock Your Doors" video as far as we could tell. But between all of the strange red herrings, puzzles, and arguments about whether it was even really Death Grips behind it, this was a case of the journey being more important that the destination, and a ton of excitement for any Death Grips super-fan.
This was the first new piece of material we got from Death Grips this year. It might have been a disappointment to some: There was no MC Ride/Keith Flint shout-off, and the ravey production didn't really feel like Death Grips, more like a strange one-off. But go back and listen again, and it's interesting to hear how much this predicts the sound the band would explore on Government Plates: the mantra-like shouts, the emphasis on texture, and the fact that they've embraced dance music more than ever before.
In late 2012 Death Grips played a series of shows without Flatlander (Andy Morin). This lead to some terrified speculation that he had quit the band. These shows were a fascinating change of pace for the band and fans, as they took on a more primal and stripped-down tone with just Zach Hill's manic drumming against MC Ride's manic shouts. This year the same thing seemed to happen with Zach Hill. Following speculation that their bandmate had quit (though this was mercifully snuffed out by a rare statement from the band), Flatlander and Ride played spring shows creating a more electronic-based set. I caught one of them at Sasquatch! Festival. They were excellent shows, a sharp razor in comparison to the blunt axe of the Hill/ Ride pairing, and reinforced the democracy of talent that makes Death Grips so powerful. They're an unholy trinity, and stripping away its star player gave us a chance to appreciate Morin and Ride in a new light. Why was Hill gone? They explained that he was laying down music for a new film he was directing, as well as working on their next album. But more on those later…
The partnership Death Grips made with Capitol allowed them to start their own label, Thirdworlds, and announce plans for a new album. That album did not appear on Capitol (or any label), rather it was given away for free even more spontaneously than the leak that got them into this whole situation in the first place. But the band has stated it's happy with the Capitol deal (which is also in association with Harvest and Caroline) and why shouldn't they be? Those labels know better than to mess with Death Grips after seeing what happened with Epic.
There was an explanation for this, but it's pretty boring (DG were backstage at Beyoncé's Staples Center show in L.A.). So I'm just going to fill the space here with a couple Beyoncé-Grips mash-up song titles that appear on an album only available in The Twilight Zone, where this picture was presumably taken. Ahem… "Run The Deep Web" "XO (AYE AYE)" "No Love On Top" "Get Me Noided" "Lil' Baby Boy" "Single Ladies Put A Bird On It" As for Robert Pattinson being in the picture, maybe it's just best if we come back to that later.
I tried many times to see Death Grips in the last year and a half. I flew to Hopscotch Festival in North Carolina – and they cancelled. I tried to see them in Boston – they cancelled. I tried to see them in Boston AGAIN – rescheduled indefinitely (this time I believe it was the venue's fault). Finally I was going to see them this summer, still holding onto a ticket I had purchased almost a year prior, and that was canceled too. Still, it’s hard to imagine the confusion felt by the people at Bottom's Lounge in Chicago the night before Death Grips’ schedule Lollapalooza show (which never happened). With simply a recording of the band’s music playing over the PA, an empty drum set on stage, and an apparent suicide note from a fan as the backdrop, the crowd turned violent and angry, smashing the drums. Then and now it never struck me as an act of antagonism; most of all it reminded me of John Cage's 4:33, another piece of music often misinterpreted as pointless. This is not silence or non-performance, you're a part of it and whatever happens, that is the performance.
Not long after the no-shows, Death Grips did the most unexpected thing they could: They released a new piece of music. It was an interesting form of response, because "Birds" offered no apologies; literally the first clear words we hear from Ride are "Fuck" and "you." But rather than the usual attack people were expecting from a new album (or from the show in Bottom's Lounge for that matter) "Birds" was a complete game changer. It's not an easy song exactly; rather it lets us witness the band breaking down and rebuilding its sound in real time. It was a rejection of the position the band had gotten themselves into, with labels, festivals, and perhaps even fans. Most of all, though, "Birds" simply did what a good lead single should: It gave us an idea of what the new album would sound like, it got us excited, and it was fucking great.
British choirmaster and star of reality TV show The Choir Gareth Malone is simply not to be fucked with. His greatest achievement came from creating a choir of spouses of soldiers in Afghanistan to sing a song created by splicing together words from letters exchanged between families and soldiers. It was the sort of thing that was emotionally powerful, experimentally ambitious, and popular enough to become the No. 1 selling Christmas single. And in one of his new projects, Malone had the idea to give a Philip Glass-style choir treatment to the song that got Death Grips on most of our radars. Death Grips have always been terrifying, but Malone managed to make them haunting.
As big as the news of No Love Deep Web 's leak was, after a year it was easy to forget that there weren't any physical copies available. That changed in August when vinyl copies appeared in stores. A band rep eventually confirmed they were not bootlegs and that the album would get a wide vinyl release in November. As for the NSFW album cover, it was decided it would be wrapped in a sleeve. Though it costs the same as any other record now, one early copy went on eBay for over $500.
Right when it seemed like Death Grips would not be pulling a no-show again, they had to cancel their FFF Fest appearance. But unlike their previous non-performances, this time they let people know in advance. (Sometimes bands do have to cancel, especially considering this wasn't part of a tour, simply a one-off show.) While this might have been the last straw for a lot of people (it certainly seemed that way in our comments section), something happened that seemed to distract everyone…
Whoever pulled this prank actually did a great service to the band. The fake press release about Robert Pattinson (remember, from the Beyoncé show?) and Colin Hanks playing male prostitutes in a short film Misoneism soundtracked by Death Grips and directed by Zach Hill came so shortly after the FFF cancelation that it dulled a lot of the anger directed toward the band. Death Grips was forced to respond to the hoax (none of it was true), and for once seemed as confused as we all were. At last, they were on the receiving end of a prank, and it was pretty great (unless they were behind it all along). Without any music for almost the entire year, and increasingly tabloid like events, it felt like Death Grips were losing some of their strange power. We wouldn’t hear anything from them for nearly a month.
On 11/13 around 4:15 pm EST, I was sitting at my desk when Michael blurted out that Death Grips had just put out a new album. Honestly I don't remember exactly how many expletives came out of my mouth as I feverishly downloaded what was listed as Government Plates, but I do remember my first interaction with the music came in the form of a music video. The video for that first track showed something pretty rare, captured above. Stefan Burnett's big, excited grin, interrupted by fits of either laughing or screaming (the lack of audio makes it hard to tell), marked a moment where Death Grips finally broke away from the bad vibes spread throughout the year. Government Plates found Death Grips reaching and evolving in every way. Burnett explored his vocal range from raw sneers ("Anne Bonny") to a surreal spoken word ("Birds"), and especially the sort of mantras that fit better in electronic music than rap (“This Is Violence Now"). On the title track he allowed his own voice to be mangled, transformed into just another instrument (not unlike Venus Williams' screamed tennis serve which made up the climax of "System Blower”). Meanwhile, Zach Hill challenged himself by becoming more reserved throughout the tracks, making the drum tracks more primitive and infinitely harder hitting. Finally Andy "Flatlander" Morin's production work grew even more complex and enveloping than before. "Big House" and "Bootleg" pounded and swung, respectively, through his dense beats and loops, but it's in the final moments that you see him shine like never before. "Whatever I Want (Fuck Who's Watch)" finds Burnett, Morin, and Hill in the form they've always been striving for – three very talented individuals completely meshing into one unified sound. They moved in such complete synch, bouncing from slow, blown out dreaminess to lightning fast attacks with a complete disregard for form. It's an incredible piece of music in its own right, but even more exciting when you think about what it spells for what's next.