Review Summary: Horror theatric-drenched supergroup release one of the year's finest old school ventures.
There’s something to be said for that old adage, “Go big, or go home.” It not only packs a wallop to a person’s self-esteem, but some artists just thrive on it; it is their quirk, their call to arms to bring everything they possibly can to the table: I am here, I am loud, so take fu
cking notice. Within rap, there are quite a few names that live by this rule, and 2007 saw almost no shortage of them. There was Kanye’s venture into pop (not to mention his media-whoring dispute with 50 Cent), Pharaohe Monch’s sexually charged politics, and RZA’s assertion that we do, indeed, need the Wu-Tang Clan (and we’re still waiting). But what would ultimately grab the year and throttle it would not be in grand musical styling (though the year’s best, Monch’s Desire
, hardly lacked on this front) but in shock value (though, well, Desire
had this, too). And I don’t mean Timbaland’s limp release (which lacked both shock and value), but the theatrics that rap artists have employed for years and what 8 Diagrams
seemed poised to bring to the table (it is, after all, what we need
), and what Ritual of Battle
ultimately stacks in spades. Oh, how we love our dramatics.
As a super
group, Army of the Pharaohs houses a wide array of eclectic performers, all jumping full force into the horror film theatrics that pad out the one-hour-plus running time. The group consists of 13 performers-- Ritual of Battle
only takes advantage of 12 of them (Apathy was busy recording elsewhere)-- though it’s a credit to the strong cohesion of the record that they each get a moment to shine. After the opening sets up the appropriate them of Ritual of Battle
(“I shall demonstrate the might”; “The pharaoh said that I should obey his voice!”), Chief Kamachi commandeers the opening verse, cracking the song’s back over the one-two step of its percussion and twinkling chimes. The true standout moments, though, come from the quick and eloquent transition between each progressive rapper during a song. In album highlight “Dump the Clip,” the language defined sample and Egyptian tonal shifts creating a memorable melody, Celph Titled’s low baritone effortlessly picks up where Esoteric’s youthful, flitting performance leaves off. In the slapdash rips and loops on “Strike Back,” backed by a bouncing piano, Demoz deconstructs Planetary’s verse, stepping over the off-kilter cabaret feel of the classic piano, while Vinnie Paz (of Jedi Mind Tricks fame) lends his croaky voice to dismantle the final verse. As a successful whole, Ritual of Battle
showcases a number of talents on display, each adding their own style without overshadowing the other.
Lyrically, Ritual of Battle
has no problem glorifying the brutality that would send the likes of Bill O’Reilly into frenzy. On the sonic score of Blue Steel, reminiscent of an ‘80s horror film score, Vinnie Paz raps, “I’ll aim the shotty at your body/shoot it through your chest/Then I’ll take a second to remind you of your gruesome death,” promising us that “[he] ain't fu
ckin' around,” and he is indeed “like a dude possessed.” Much of the album plays out like this, like some thoughtful and gritty throwback to classic of horror flicks, with references to films like Halloween
and even Black Christmas
(here lovingly attached as a song title and given a modern, gang-related spin). With “Black Christmas,” Demoz begs for a gun and bullets for Christmas, the harrowing and sinister piano sporadically slicing the boom bap as the song lumbers towards its five-minute mark. Many songs rely on this formula of horror scores, the album’s latter half especially drenched in it. “Through Blood by Thunder” is one of the more memorable exercises as a string-laden track, with the devilish sneer and Hitchcockian flair. First single “Bloody Tears”’s melody is lifted from the legendary Castlevania series, with the gun shot spattered “D and D” close behind with a Halloween
core, creating thick tension within the thunderous drumbeats and crass vocal performance by Des Devious. The one-two punch of “Drama Theme” and “Pages in Blood” create the most atmospheric duo on Ritual of Battle
, the former sticking eight of the rappers into its solemn martyr-obsessed organ track, and the latter treating its electronics like a funhouse carnival straight out of a Rob Zombie flick.
Though it’s hard to tell if Ritual of Battle
could have been more successful than it already is had it been cut down to a more accessible length (it’s tough to labor through the first few sittings), it’s still impressive that these guys can stay consistent, even when the album stutters under the weight. With an impressive onslaught of producers (Esoteric proves quite adept behind the scenes, turning in three of the album’s strongest tracks; “Murda Murda” is an impressive collision of lyrical flow and bass-thumping beats), Ritual of Battle
is technically sound, an album that has no problem berating the listeners without consoling them with hooks. It helps to bring the horror elements to Ritual of Battle
to life, a fact not wasted on the group who walk a tightrope between shock value and disgusting over-the-top storytelling.
Then again, it only strengthens the notion of war and warriors that finds the guys charging the epic horns in album centerpiece “Frontline.” In no way are these guys going to skimp on the dirty details, a fact that could carry this group into a heavily debated, cult-like status. And for a bunch of guys devoted to the horror genre full of go-big-or-go-home, cult-like phenomenon, I’m sure they wouldn’t have it any other way.