(Deathbomb Arc, 2016)
Let’s talk about the elephant stomping around the room first, a’ight? Yes, you might recognize that guy over there – that’s Daveed Diggs. Actually, you’ve probably heard of him at this point. Emmy award? Check. Grammy award? Check. Sub Pop contract? Check. Awesome hair? Check. But with all those things going for him, he’s still only a fraction of True Neutral Crew, the avant-hip-hop group we’ve loved around here for like a million years it seems. That’s right, he clocks in at a mere 25 percent in this outfit, which also includes mastermind/ex-Foot Villager/ex-Rose for Bohdan-er/serial collaborator/Deathbomb Arc label head/all-around good guy Brian Miller, genius and also previous feature on Critical Masses Margot Padilla (fka I.E.), and genius and also previous multiple feature on Critical Masses Signor Benedick the Moor. Oh I’m just so giddy when I think about the kind of music this lineup can produce!
After a couple of EPs (and releases from other projects) we finally have the long-awaited full-length debut, not #BIRTHDAY, but soft rules, and yes, it continues right where #POPPUNK left off within the band’s own defined #krautrap spectrum. And let it be known that while this may not mean a lot to those outside of TNC’s circle, it solidifies the group’s standing as purveyors of the most outré-magical mind trips imaginable. The list of contemporaries operating within the same orbit is small and consists mainly of other Deathbomb acts and TNC offshoot entities. I gotta be honest, Signor Benedick the Moor is pretty much his own genre right now.
If you want to make a case that True Neutral Crew is the logical extension of Miller’s love of rap and haunted houses, I’m not going to fault you for going there. Perhaps the unheralded fifth member of TNC is “mood,” aka “production,” aka how it feels to be on soft rules. (Or maybe it’s the ghost skeleton puppet in the live shows.) There’s a heavy dose of spooky mansion feels up in a TNC joint, and the group’s fascination with The X-Files is well documented (see “X-Files Clan” on #MONSANTO). That #krautrap thing makes a lot more sense when viewed through this lens, as bombast is kept at bay in favor of deep, dark electronics that coat songs instead of buoy them. It’s only when the vocalists push through the theoretical murk that the pit in our stomach is shaken a bit looser and we’re reminded that we’re having fun. (Although “More a Kid [Hareld Remix ft. Shadi]” doesn’t really let loose at all, in the best horror-rap way. See, for a different example, SB the Moor’s “A2onality” from Signor Benedick the Moor’s Spooky Reader’s Theatre.)
So crushing electronic horror or wink/nod social commentary? All of the above, and I’m mainly enthralled by Benedick’s verse on “Florence,” which leaves me shaking my head and giggling every time I listen to it. Pissing off the Polish by suggesting one eats hoagies over pierogies – what a line! (I particularly enjoy it as an ex-Pennsylvanian.) Anyway, imaginary gods and monsters pervade the tracks, or gods/monsters, who end up not really amounting to much, if anything at all – all bark and no bite. (“God Is Bored,” after all, to borrow an actual song title to flow into the narrative.) TNC creates their own gods, maybe themselves, and that’s OK when the results are as consistently stunning as they are on soft rules. Guests and Deathbomb signees They Hate Change even coin one of the best similes in the rap game within the parenthetical in the title of “Monotheism (Shine Like My Car)” – I can only imagine Miller’s reaction when he heard the line: “Guys, I’m putting that in the title!” (Or maybe it was there all along.)
I’d have been completely satisfied with the nine tracks comprising soft rules, but TNC have gone and done us one better by including a second disc in the CD version of the album, featuring #MONSANTO and #POPPUNK in their entirety, along with singles, one-offs, and compilation tracks. It’s pretty much The Complete True Neutral Crew if such an album existed. If you’ve missed the releases (and you absolutely should not have), here’s your chance to make good on the terrible situation you’ve put yourself in. It’s worth it for the revision of “Modern Art” alone (the rhythm’s been boosted compared to the #POPPUNK version).
Ultimately, soft rules proves the case that True Neutral Crew has been making all along: that they aren’t interested in following any sort of template and would rather push every single boundary that they possibly can. In this, soft rules is a triumph, a culmination of the Voltronic mind powers of its creators. It feels like this is what Deathbomb Arc as a label has been moving toward for a long time, and now it’s hit its peak.