TONY BENNETT: A lot works in ‘Greyscale’
Minnesota hip-hop’s doing alright. For the past decade, names like Doomtree, Atmosphere and Brother Ali have been on the lips and fingertips of the fans of indie rap, and now a new generation of the acolytes of these local luminaries are rising to the fore and making their own music.
Here’s Pseudoubt, a trio from Minneapolis. They describe themselves as being a “hip-hop/rock/electronic fusion” group, and that’s about right, even though it’s a pretty broad description. The group is mainly hip-hop, but there are chunks of trippiness that recall older British stuff like Massive Attack or Portishead, and there are islands of indie rock with melodic singing.
Sonically, the group’s debut, “Greyscale,” is impressive. Producer Adriatic concocts interesting, enveloping soundscapes that guitarist Riley Iris subtly decorates with repetitive, circular lines. Pink Floydian bits of synth and backwards soundscapery are all over this thing, and beats are treated with reverb to expand the sound outward.
Of course, the focus with hip-hop always goes to the MC in the end, and here, the voice belongs to a guy called Artifex, who is cut from the cloth of the more-thoughtful modern rappers who forego the materialist and braggadocious tendencies of so many traditionalists in the genre to explore more emotional, deeper avenues.
It’s not the emo-rap of Atmosphere, where woe-is-me sections butt up against I’m-awesome sections, causing a kind of cognitive dissonance, but it’s plenty emo.
Artifex is pretty solid, but he sounds a bit green here and there. When he’s intoning about a “sad sad story cliche,” he takes on a bit of an omniscient-narrator pose that doesn’t really become him. He doesn’t have the gravitas, the wise-man confidence that he plays at. When he focuses more on rhythm and rhyme, he comes off much better.
Something like “Note to Self” fails because it’s got a slow, ominous verse that causes Artifex to bear down and rely on his ability to project darkness, but he doesn’t succeed. When the double-time chorus hits: “This is all in a note to myself that I wrote in my own cold blood,” it ends up sounding like some horror-rap Insane Clown Posse thing.
This isn’t to say that Pseudoubt sounds like ICP. But there are moments where the group seems to want to take things down a dark path that they don’t seem justified in taking. They work better when they go spacey and more relaxed, as on “Pathogen.”
Dubsteppy wobbles meet a rapid-fire Artifex, whose lyrics are more impressionistic, more focused on attack than meaning. Lines about “lock-pick pistons” or about everything tasting like “feathered charwood” are pretty much devoid of meaning, but they work because they have rhythmic function in the lines.
“Finding Riley” is a weird anomaly on the album, a song that almost seems like some Death Cab for Cutie deal, with Artifex singing “Will you always be my friend?” in a sweet voice. It works, at least until the song chickens out and goes into an aggressive rap section.
There’s a lot here that works. The music is almost always well-done and engaging (albeit without many solid hooks), but there are times when Artifex comes off a bit like an actor playing a role, rather than really being his true self. These guys seem pretty fresh-faced, though — their bio talks about the members meeting each other in high school — so they may have lots of maturing to do.
At the very least, it’s more intriguing than that last Atmosphere album was ...
Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.