John Matraia
John Matraia
1 Apr 2020

We are currently living through a historical event and at times, it is difficult to keep our spirits up. All we can do is try to adapt and do what we can to keep ourselves safe and sane while being cooped up indoors. One way to cope is to try and step away from the tragedy for an hour or two. I’ve personally found myself watching movies, reading, or listening to music to distract myself. There are many different ways music can help, but I’ve found that albums that distinguish themselves from the rest are those that create a distinct atmosphere and a world of their own. They do this by establishing consistencies, not just sonically, but also in terms of subject matter.

An atmosphere alone isn’t ideal though. Many albums fall victim to using the same presets, filters, or vocal pitching across songs to the point where they blend together and create an album that serves as nothing more than a soulless tone. What is really impressive is an album’s ability to have a collection of songs that stand strong on their own, while also reinforcing the qualities that many of the tracks around them share, thus creating a cohesive piece.

You may be thinking that I’m just describing a concept album, and some may use that term more loosely than I do, but the projects I point out below are not in-your-face with a singular story or meaning. While they create their own universe, that universe may vary from listener to listener because these projects allow us to make our own interpretation of it, while still focusing on certain themes and stringing the project together musically. This is exactly what makes these albums below such transcendent experiences.

Liquid Swords – GZA (1995)

Liquid Swords gives me a feeling similar to the one I felt when I watched Michael Mann’s film Heat from the same year. The world of Los Angeles in Heat, contrary to the film’s title, is actually cold, devoid of any compassion or love. The icy blue hues that consume so much of the film’s color palette represent the city’s cold nature and the characters’ inner workings. The film is raw and up close and personal with the characters and the multiple lives that they each balance. On Liquid Swords, GZA (and other members of the Wu-Tang Clan) recognize the reality of the world they are living in, and this album is them coming to terms with that reality and telling their story. The intoxicating combination of GZA’s otherworldly raps and RZA’s barren beats place the listener directly into New York’s cold world in 1995. Everything, down to the way the album is mixed, drops the listener into their story.

The beats on Liquid Swords are dark and skeletal, with grim storytelling to match. Its minimal production doesn’t distract from the rapping, but everything included is necessary for the album’s success. GZA reflects on his surroundings, most notably on tracks like “Cold World”, speaking on the violence and other social problems that surround him in New York. Along the way though, he also establishes his dominance as a top tier rapper who will slay any opponent he comes across. It wasn’t just RZA’s production that created the bleak aura of Liquid Swords. GZA’s way of translating the daily problems people in his position faced for the listener to give them a harsh, yet realistic depiction of his life adds to this nature and brings the listener in. Liquid Swords is a true timepiece that captured the gritty essence of a night in New York, and has also proven to be a lasting piece of music that has influenced the generations to come.

The OOZ – King Krule (2017)

The OOZ is King Krule’s slow and lengthy descent into loneliness. It translates emotional outbursts into music on post-punk influenced tracks like “Dum Surfer”, and converts roaming aimlessly into ambient pieces like “The Cadet Leaps.” Tracks here include subtleties in the background that would be musically impressive even without the dark jazz infused instrumentation that graces the foreground of those tracks. The album drags on in the most realistic way possible, following our protagonist as he copes with the dreary world surrounding him.

The album’s moody nature swallows the listener through fleeting guitar solos and alienated keyboard melodies. The instrumentation of “Lonely Blue” becomes more climactic as Archy’s vocals become louder and more helpless. The experiences Archy describe seem uncertain to the listener at times, but the mystery within the songs reflect the unpredictable essence of his experiences. We empathize with his sense of misdirection, and wander along with him in a world that seems hopeless at times.

Big Fish Theory – Vince Staples (2017)

Even if Big Fish Theory came out today, it would still be ahead of its time. There is nothing quite like this album, and I’m sitting here waiting for it to get the credit it deserves. If nothing else, from a production perspective alone, it is remarkable. The beats are sharp and cold with rhythms that move in hot and sweaty fashion, serving as a wake-up call within an album that has a very gloomy feel to it. The punchy, booming bass on every track feels like the thunder that accompanies a rainy day.

Regardless of whether the track goes down a more electronic dance route or takes on an industrial sound, Vince’s adrenaline-packed delivery is hard to ignore. When a track like “Big Fish” takes a funkier approach, a subtle running water sound effect plays throughout the track and strings together the album’s motif of water, supplemented by other tracks with bubbly synthesizers and futuristic recordings. A small detail like this only adds to the theme of drowning created by the other tracks through Vince’s lack of optimism about society’s future and even the way his vocals are mixed. We hear this distrust in Vince’s lyrics that are fed up with the system and the dystopian world that the music of the album creates.

Wildflower – The Avalanches (2016)

Wildflower is breezy and care-free musical bliss. It’s rooted in nostalgia and creates a sense of longing for the unknown future in the listener. The light, airy rhythms and angelic vocals are pure joy in sonic form. It’s full of bright and colorful textures, and flows together beautifully. The run from “Subways” to “If I Was a Folkstar” features infectious grooves that float above the glistening samples and take us on a journey like none other.

The group’s unique sampling style we heard on Since I Left You is still there, but Wildflower presents more easy-going instrumentals at times that give the listener space to breathe and lounge on the beach. Not only that, but The Avalanches also make room for a number of guest appearances on the record from the likes of Danny Brown, MF DOOM, Biz Markie, Ariel Pink, Toro y Moi, and more.

While the first three projects I pointed out featured murky aspects, I’m glad to end this piece on more of a cheerful note with an uplifting album experience. Many of us tend to resort to consuming darker art, and it’s good to be in touch with that side of ourselves. It’s important to understand our situation and face it. At the same time though, it’s important to take a step back from all of this and try not to worry or mope around too much, because better days are ahead.