Review Summary: Came back to God like, 'motherfucker, you promised.'
Some years back, I began a term of employment at a members-only club. The exclusivity of this club was so absurd that the yearly fee cost six figures, not including the initial cost to join which was only slightly less. Surrounding the club was a 1700 acre estate, home to only the filthy rich and the senselessly wasteful. The club provided me with accommodation on these grounds and I skateboarded through the estate every day to and from work, much to the chagrin of residents and my employers. In the initial weeks of my employment I experimented with the different routes that snaked their way about the vast area, and on one of these excursions I discovered a house. A mansion, like all the others, but at the end of the driveway stood a large steel fence. Beyond this, a mock-Georgian manor house; uninhabited, dilapidated, and quickly being reclaimed by the weeds sprouting from the land surrounding it. Nestled in between a house not unlike the one owned by Tony Montana and another, similarly opulent but much more modern in its’ architecture. The empty house intrigued me, as it had clearly stood abandoned for some time, and yet the air surrounding it was thick with value and stories that perhaps, no one will ever hear. Children’s toys strewn in the courtyard, a broken trellise leant carelessly against one side of the house, a toppled chimneypot now smashed in front of the porch. The suggestion of life having happened at this once flourishing family home, all now moved along and left to rot as a memory. I used this route religiously for years, and the jarring tone of this one unloved former residence against a backdrop so lavish and luxurious never stopped being a truly surreal, daily reality check. This anecdote runs deeper than a contrast between different fortunes or a simple parallel for Hiding Places' album art; the resonance of the house’s history swirled like clouds of smoke around the structure, and even though I knew nothing about the real story of the building or what had happened there, I felt like I could relate- and understood all too well.
Billy Woods has never been one to shy away from uncomfortable topics and this plateau is realized from the very first track of the album, the innocuously titled ‘spongebob’; a droning bass loop set against occasional chimes that Woods weaves his wordplay about with startling eccentricity. Producer Kenny Segal brings out the best in Woods by allowing him stripped-down, frequently fractal beats that teeter between rhythmically challenged and distressingly unhinged. Woods not only utilises these backing tracks to their fullest potential, but frequently excels at finding unique flow patterns that contrast with the dissonant tones so elegantly that at times it borders on sublime. The final part of ‘Checkpoints’ and the entirety of ‘Houthi’ are prime examples of this, with impeccably depressing imagery and wonderfully lo-fi hooks, particularly in the latter’s verses. The stuttering rhythm of 'Spider Hole' and its slow development to incorporate an understated piano sample and angry synth flashes again illustrates this vicious see-sawing, with Woods' equally noxious delivery providing the perfect accompaniment to the unfolding instability.
The emotional weight of Hiding Places cannot be understated, both in terms of sound and lyricism. The dark synthwave tones of ‘A Day In A Week In A Year’ are oppressively bleak, shadowing a carefully orchestrated and comparatively lighter surrounding song structure. This creates levels within the songs themselves and grants the record overall a tone of schizophrenic unbalance that permits it to be disturbing on a level deeper than simply the composite elements. Similarly, the deranged mid-point breakdown of ‘Bedtime’ is so disconcerting that when it shudders back into the song’s main bassline, the track takes on a completely different feeling from then on. These curiosities are a credit to Segel, who most certainly rolled the dice with these aesthetic choices. The truly remarkable thing is not only do all the rudiments come together, but they thrive and function in a completely distinct and unique way when converged. Tracks like ‘Crawlspace’ and ‘Toothy’ emphasize these choices with slightly more lively rhythms and playful instrumentation, and it works just as well. Despite the more agile tone, none of the cold energy is sacrificed and Woods ably transmits the bleak emotionality at a faster pace. It is, however, when the vibe heads down a truly dark path that the album takes flight in earnest; ‘Bigfakelaugh’ is utterly teeth-chattering with its heavy bass hits and muddled piano keys. It is unpleasantness personified in the best possible way, concise in its’ venomous lyrical barbs, but lingering long after the fact like a pungent smell.
Hiding Places is utterly spellbinding. There is a poisonous little energy at its soulless core that has been wrapped in duct tape and barbed wire so tightly it positively leaks bile and bleeds discomfort. There’s a nonchalance to the content, no matter how serious the subject matter, and the album plays like vox pops or a sequence of soliloquies, featuring musings on a wide variety of issues ranging from human and emotional concerns to spiritual and philosophical pontifications. As individual tracks, each song stands out as a nod to the vibe of underground New York hip hop (in ethos if not in tone), but as a whole the album is a murky and ethereal experience that challenges, even dares the listener to dissect the twisted world they are experiencing. The dreamlike and otherworldly feel behind many of the songs frequently gives way to nightmares, and the devil’s elbow style of the transitions not only shakes the experience up, but frequently provides a curious change in pace to both the emotionality, and the musical tone of the production. Every track has a distinct aura attached to it from the opening seconds and it transmits this energy flawlessly on every song. Although the album is thoroughly alive in its creativity and sharp sense of virulent imagery, it is dead behind the eyes. It has no agenda, and wishes nothing for you. This, to me, is the essence of Hiding Places; an interminable spiral of discordance and wayward bitterness, held together by an energy that feels not only universally relatable but agonizingly real. A rotten tooth in a mouthful of pearly whites, providing you enough pain and ugliness to ensure that you never forget that it’s there. The prosperity has long since gone, but the wheels keep turning and the factory keeps ticking over. Hiding Places is the house I skated past every day- A crooked, foreboding structure, empty and soulless, but full of ghosts.