Monday, March 26, 2012

Free Alias!

So yesterday we had a HipHopSite freebie, now let's look at some competing Sandbox freebies. By the early 2000's, Anticon's Alias had pretty much turned his focus completely to production. He still did guest verses and stuff, but he was really devoting his energies towards a prolific, and still ongoing, run of instrumental albums.

Now, just speaking for myself, strictly instrumental hip-hop barely holds my interest; if it doesn't have a lot of cuts, change-ups or... some fucking thing happening, I get bored pretty quick: Once the same drum pattern and sample loops for the fifth time with absolutely nothing different from the last four, I'm ready to go home. And, producers, that little drum roll every seventy seconds doesn't cut it. Now, granted, Alias's instrumentals are a little more alive than that sort of worst-case scenario I'm describing (more on that in a bit), but it's the same principle - instrumental hip-hop just doesn't compare to the stuff with proper vocals.

So I was on the fence about buying any of his post-Bits & Pieces releases. The Other Side Of the Looking Glass had a hot song with Dose One, and Muted featured a great song with Pedestrian. But buying entire albums for just one song apiece, even really compelling ones? Granted, I'd done it before, but still. I needed something to push me over the edge. And Sandbox was there for me.

This four-track CD of completely exclusive material came free with an order of The Other Side Of the Looking Glass. Three of these tracks are also instrumentals, which means they're probably more interesting to other Alias fans than they are to me, but hey. They're exclusive, they help make a nice collectors' item, and it's not like the music isn't any good.

"Kill My Television" features slow, abrasive drums, a cool piano loop, and distorted vocal samples that go a long way towards keeping your attention as other elements start to feel monotonous. It also has a nice breakdown.

"Firstsong" doesn't have any helpful voices, but it's constantly changing, introducing new synths or other distorted elements. It picks up around the minute mark once it's got more layers in the mix, though it starts to collapse on it self and repeat before it's over.

And "Waves Hello" features a lot of backwards percussion and wavey drawn-out keyboard notes. It's the mellow, low-key one of the bunch.

But the most interesting track here is "Times Up Remix." I remember seeing that and thinking, "I don't remember Alias having a song called 'Time's Up'." Well, that was right, but of course you know who did have a song called "Time's Up:" O.C. Yup, this is Alias's take on his classic Wild Pitch debut. And, interestingly, this isn't the only time Anticon's taken a stab at releasing their own remix of this song - Sole also remixed it for his Secret History Of Underground Rap compilation.* And like that one, honestly, it doesn't hold a candle to the beloved original (or the phat Eclipse remix on the same 12"). But, wisely - and also like the Sole version - it doesn't try.

While the vocals are of course the same, this version is so different, it plays like an entirely different animal, not a competing alternate. The opening lines come stuttering in, and then they're merged in with a sort of distorted, low-fi electronic sound made up of of belligerent computer noises and drums that sound like they were played (intentionally) way too loud so they broke when the meters went deep into the red levels. He essentially turned into into a El-P joint. It's pretty effective in its own right, though the original "Hey Young World" scratches sound out of place on this mix. He should've replaced them with something new for the hook on this mix, if you ask me.

Two years later, I was really not feeling the idea of buying another entire Alias album for another single song. Even when Sandbox again read my mind and presented another bonus CD, I still wasn't taking the bait. But then, thankfully, Alias released a 12" single off of that album, which featured the Pedestrian song. Perfect, that's what I really wanted! If only he'd done the same for "Opus Ashamed"... But, anyway, somehow I wound up getting a free copy of Muted from them, too - and with it, the bonus disc.

This is a three tracker, and like the other disc, all the songs are exclusive, never having been released anywhere else before or since. And this time it came in a nifty, circular CD case. They're all instrumentals here, too, but I like these better. I'm not sure it's because he's grown so much as a producer, as I like some of his old stuff as much or more as his later material. But I think he's gotten noticeably better at making instrumental hip-hop tracks that stand alone as complete songs, rather than sounding like unfinished song pieces that are missing their vocals.

"Drunken Piano" sounds very DJ Shadowy to me. And I mean the good DJ Shadow era that everybody likes; not his cheesy hyphy stuff or whatever he drifted off into. As you'd expect, there's a lot of piano sample going on here. And though it's mostly a very short six-note riff, there are some nice change-ups, and even more importantly, it all plays on top of a very moody, shifty soundscape. But it still has very fast, distinctly Alias-y drums. And usually that would be a criticism, because I often feel he's replacing soul by trying to distract you with high energy busyness... but here I like his drums. 8)

"Forgotten" is in some ways similar. It has a bunch of slower, moodier samples playing to build a richer atmosphere, which works well. But this time the main samples that drive the song are boring and unengaging. It's like if a label gave a really talented producer a really shitty record and told him he had to use that sample as the body of the song (which I'm sure has happened more than once in this genre). He takes it and pulls out all the tricks, chopping the drums and flipping extra little horns and what-not, which improve it and show off his talents; but at the end of the day, it still doesn't fly with audiences, because it's built around a lousy idea.

Things pick up again with the last track, "Rhymeoverthis." Is that a dare? Because this beat really doesn't lend itself to rapping over it. But it's still pretty fresh. It samples a lot of chimes and bells with a smoother, slower track. Again, like the last CD, he ends with the cool out song, like we should all lay down, get high and stare at the stars. And this one goes for over six minutes, but I still don't get bored listening to it, which is a huge compliment from me for instrumental hip-hop.

So, even though I could've done without "Forgotten," this disc actually shows me why there's an audience for this stuff. Still, though... it's not really for me, and after this review I'm sure I'll be putting both discs away to go unplayed for a very long time. In favor of songs with actual vocals on them. I imagine these are more exciting and essential for Alias fans who are into his instrumental albums. But even for the rest of us, they were cool, free bonus discs.

*And he used a line from it for the hook and theme of one of his earliest 12" singles, "Respect." This was obviously a very inspirational song for them back in their early days n Maine.

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