It’s tough to know where to begin when talking about Death Grips. The experimental music trio, which has been active and releasing a frequent amount of music since 2011, has been frequently lauded for constantly pushing musical boundaries and constantly challenging expectations of them. They’ve also been known to mess with the press, their labels, and even their fanbase from time to time. The group keeps a pretty consistent schedule for full-length projects, but that pattern slowed a bit last year when we were given the EP Steroids (Crouching Tiger Hidden Gabber Megamix), which came with the announcement of a full-length album coming soon. Given their non-stop work schedule (Keep in mind, they had also toured alongside Ministry in the interim), I figured they had something special in mind if they kept an album on the backburner until now. And so, we now have the group’s latest studio album, the ominously titled Year of the Snitch, and this one… definitely took some time to process.
Death Grips is constantly reinventing their sound, and that’s no different here, since as soon as you hit play on the album opener “Death Grips Is Online,” you’re immediately thrown for a quite a loop. The title comes from a phrase/meme that the band would tweet and retweet on and off since last year, and the song certainly sounds quite online in the sense of its digital sound. The intro and pre-choruses are driven by a heavily synthesized chord structure that’s very lush and just washes over the mix, accompanied by a driving skittering electronic drum beat. Occasionally, these are accompanied by some light DJ scratches that anticipate the rhythm of the sampled phrase “Punks get nailed all in the daytime, and I got good friends who love to headline with a-.” MC Ride’s flow throughout the song alternates between these rapid-fire sets of bars in the verses and some really hyped wailing of “pretty pretty nine, mothafucka” in the choruses. There’s an unusually euphoric vibe given off by all of these elements coming together, and it’s a ridiculously catchy and addicting musical hook.
The following tracks settle into territory that feels both different and familiar. “Flies” is one of the more quintessential Death Grips tracks on the album, with Ride alternating between his trademark aggressive flow and more mellow delivery as he gives some morbid thoughts about death, including the chorus lyrics:
“Should the opportunity arise, vomit me flies
Flies vomit me, vomit green eyes.”
The beat has a fluttering synth melody that dips and rises in melody often, inducing a sort of hypnotic dream state when listening, especially when combined with the listless hazy guitar lead that hovers above the beat at times. It feels reminiscent of the Government Plates era somewhat, although the song does sample lines from Exmilitary and The Money Store as well towards the end. Meanwhile, “Black Paint” feels like a holdover from Jenny Death, with this slow pounding buildup from the drums and bass combined with a vocal flow that emphasizes slow-burn intensity instead of dense rhythms. Parts of the song even sample from Jenny Death (mainly DJ-scratched vocal samples from “Turned Off”), reinforcing the more intense vibe of the song. There’s also the in-your-face banger “Shitshow”, which cranks up the ferocity into a wall of hard-hitting audio noise and off-kilter rhythmic tendencies.
Speaking of the DJ scratches, they ultimately end up playing the biggest role in the unique sound characteristics of Year of the Snitch. The DJ work on the album comes courtesy of DJ Swamp who, conveniently enough, is also currently a member of Ministry. His hand comes through in nearly every track, always adding glitchy distortion effects and chopped-up vocal samples from song to song, alongside various other subtle touches. The album has quite the hypnotic digital vibe to much of it, which probably best summarizes the stylistic shifts present.
“Hahaha” is a prime example, as the intro ramps up with a soft chiptune bassline and some digital scratch effects, creating a hazy drifting vibe, especially with the half-time drum groove in the verses. The song is mainly rapped in a soft-spoken style, save for the shouts in the chorus, and the lyrics are quite grotesquely sexual, containing a handful of references to Linda Kasabian, the former Manson Family member who testified against Charles Manson during the early ‘70s, perhaps marking her as the “Snitch” in question (these references also appear on the appropriately-titled “Linda’s In Custody”). “Dilemma” opens with a spoken word intro from Shrek director Andrew Adamson (sadly it’s not as dank of a collaboration as all the meme lovers out there were hoping for), and it segues into a somber synthesizer melody that’s quite melancholic by Death Grips standards. Certain passages of the song feel exceptionally digital, especially some of the bridges which use digitized bleeps and blips almost akin to Tomorrowland attractions or old science documentaries. It’s an interesting sound and a surprisingly good song.
The final stretch of the album is quite memorable in how head-scratching it can be. “Little Richard” is the most digital track on the record, opening with stuttering distortion and feedback seguing into a dramatic synthetic drum and bass ramp-up (side note: all the bass on the album was provided by none other than Tool bassist Justin Chancellor). A couple of synth bursts help transition into “The Fear,” which deliberately strips the music down to its most minimal form possible. While the drum work is quite dense, with Zach Hill channeling a jazz vibe and his math rock roots, the keyboard/synth melody is extremely low-key, and aside from a couple of pitch-shifted voice samples, the beat has tons of breathing room. MC Ride raps about his fears and anxieties on the track, referencing suicidal thoughts and a perpetual sense of sickness, getting in some fierce shouts on the chorus which is more impactful thanks to the stripped down instrumentation. The album goes into “Outro” which literally just sounds like a Queens of the Stone Age sample filtered through an old speaker, and then it goes into the actual final track, the almost trollishly-named “Disappointed.” The verses are driven by a drum beat reminiscent of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” and a repetitive voice of “wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah disappointed,” making the song sound like it’s actively mocking the listener for being upset with the album in any way. The ironic thing is the song is a straight-up banger in every way possible, so no one could argue against the mockery. The verses feature MC Ride delivering two layers of bars that syncopate off of one another (one track of softer deliver and one of aggressive shouts) as he comments on his relationship with fame and the fickleness of the Death Grips fanbase. This culminates in one of the most hype things that the group’s ever written, with Ride’s wild screeches of “WHYYYYY ME?!” in the chorus. The song is an incredible way to end the album.
As to be expected, Year of the Snitch completely upends any expectations that could be had with the group. Certain tracks may seem like familiar territory, but the album takes many twists and delves into a hypnagogic state a lot of the time, which is quite the new territory for a band normally enjoyed for their uniquely abrasive sound. It can be quite confusing in spots and tough to pick up on, but as always, give the album enough listens and its quality shines through, marking this as yet another essential listen in the Death Grips catalog.
Final Verdict: buy it. Death Grips is online, and you are online too, so you have no excuse.
Year of the Snitch is available from Third Worlds on CD, vinyl, digital download, and streaming services.