Early on in Distant, Martis Unruly sleepily declares “I look like I’m pissed off/Yet I feel so positive,” the removed tone of the statement jutting up against both the words and the poppy, dystopic “Hollaback Girl” beat. The question posed by that juxtaposition is a classic unreliable narrator dilemma: do we believe Martis’ words? do we believe Khrist Koopa’s sonics? or do we view both of them as untrustworthy and look for the truth somewhere in-between or even further off? As with everything connected to Martis and Khrist’s collective UDF, the mysteries only grow the further you dig, making the cult rap outfit the most menacing presence on the West Coast, a sinister force that makes queasy music for subterraneans and alienates anyone not willing to submit to whatever it is they’re preaching.
Distant certainly makes it tempting to give in to UDF’s dark side, the album by far the most consistent and rewarding solo release to come from UDF yet. The collective’s masterpiece God’s Work arguably has better individual tracks, but Distant seems to grasp what made those tracks click while avoiding some of the lulls that bogged down portions of God’s Work. Distant stand out “Genuine,” for instance, mirrors the bell toll hypnosis of God’s Work centerpiece “For the Deal” but expands the sonic palette, the bells colliding with vocal samples that sound like frog croaks and a breakdown that might be a filtered gamelan or a bone xylophone or who knows the fuck what. Martis also appears to have evolved further as an emcee, filling “Genuine” with complicated rhythmic diversions as he describes “scurrying to your window,” promising that whatever his motivations for stalking are, at least you know they’re genuine.
That artistic evolution comes through in the stated ambitions of Martis, too, with the bleakly named “Bag of Abyss” finding the ominous emcee utilizing a lilting cadence as he proclaims he’s a “rockstar till I die,” feeling so alive he’ll “literally never die,” mirrored later by the mesmerizing “Melancholy” and Martis’ tossed off request that we not cry when he “dies again,” an indication that death isn’t a permanent concept as far as he’s concerned. Much has been made of the connection between rock icons and messiahs, with the former frequently aping the moves and rhetoric of the latter, both camps prone to early deaths that guarantee their cultural immortality, but Martis connects the two with unabashed swagger, aided by Khrist Koopa’s monk-like audio. “Bag of Abyss” is a messiah complex ballad, deep and grand as a monastery, the synth textures pulling the rest of the mix in like hellish legions eager to obtain followers no matter what, making for some of the freakiest hooks in recent memory. At least until “Wolf on My Back” comes on, slicing at your brain with off-kilter toy synth lines and a Martis verse that seems to actively work against the rhythm of the beat, an anxiety attack as a fetish club anthem.
Everything shifts in the second half of Distant, though, as Koopa strips down the percussive elements to minimal cymbals and ghostly snares, expanding the low end of the songs with massive synth pads and sharp blasts of leads. You get a glimpse of this early on with “Paralysis” and its horror score lead line, but it’s “Skeletons” that kicks it off in full, cavernous bass and a barely audible hook padding Martis’ pulsing flow as he whispers about escaping hell and trying to forget what he saw. But it’s most effective on closer “Grunge Goon,” a seamless merger of Side A’s evil hooks and Side B’s courting of the abyss, Martis going on a hard attack as the beat comes in and out of frame in fits and starts. John Carpenter’s influence might be looming largest in the current darkwave scene, but this second half of Distant is a reminder that hip hop called dibs on the audio auteur first and Distant goes beyond mere sonic references to this effect, pulling from the director’s Apocalypse Trilogy, specifically Prince of Darkness, for thematic connections as well.
Like that era of Carpenter’s filmmaking, Distant is a work that might lack witty one liners and easibly decipherable intentions, but its use of mood and menace is so confident and interesting it requires cult devotion. Martis Unruly and Khrist Koopa are unreliable narrators, but every holy text is full of such characters and the appeal comes not from understanding the truth but the pursuit of understanding, making Distant a work that thwarts easy interpretation and consumption and instead demands sacrifice– of time, expectation, awareness.
Distant will be out next Monday, February 22nd through Another Bullshit Night From Cleveland.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover