Like a lot of Americans, I’ve spent most of 2017 tense and nervous and unable to relax, wired on the buzz of anxiety that comes from every cursory glance at the headlines. I feel like the world is ending not as a bang but as a joke and all I can do about it is silently scream. If I was asked to pull that scream out of me and give it life it would sound like Remains, a new work by noise rap pioneer B L A C K I E and I thank B L A C K I E for at least giving our collective anxiety a vivid artistic life.
Remains is the most powerful and cathartic work of B L A C K I E’s anarchic, mesmerizing career. It is an album of beautiful pain, a maelstrom of shredded vocals, atonal cacophony and unexpected melodic tranquility. In the past, some listeners, groomed on B L A C K I E’s comparably more digestible descendants Death Grips and Clipping, have struggled to get past the barbed wire outer skin of B L A C K I E’s music to see the haunted poetry within, but Remains resolves that without sacrificing the inherent sonic violence of B L A C K I E’s aesthetic. All of B L A C K I E’s material functions as the culmination of Walt Whitman’s concept of the barbaric yawp but Remains is that yawp coated in a bittersweet glaze, easier to stomach but no less potent.
Key to that transformation is B L A C K I E’s embrace of post-punk attributes like the simple driving drums and grimy synth leads on “Run from Desire.” These elements are a considerable shift away from the brutalist rhythms of B L A C K I E’s previous releases, which almost always kept B L A C K I E’s glass swallowing vocals front and center, constantly clipping and bursting through the red of the VU meter. There’s more depth to the arrangements on Remains, wider space for each of the musical ingredients and “Run from Desire” is its tell tale heart, the monotone, uncharacterstically clear delivery of B L A C K I E’s verse giving way to a traumatic howl, poked and prodded by what sounds like a melancholic digital melodica.
Remains even has an honest to good hook later on “Return to Control,” courtesy of a fuzzy toy piano synth line tapping out an unhinged nursery melody while B L A C K I E grunts out his lyrics in a stop start rhythm, like Danzig covering Andrew W. K. The more stately and ambitious “Academy Academy” also features that toy piano effect but instead of giving way to another off-kilter B L A C K I E take on pop it channels the No Wave atonal experiments of Glenn Branca and Arto Lindsay. Yet even here, B L A C K I E’s vocals are pop in their own way, the chorus in particular seemingly nodding to Kraftwerk’s warped plasticity.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of Remains is “Rest in My Brain,” an apocalyptic ballad where B L A C K I E forgoes his larynx destruction in favor of a more subdued delivery. This isn’t to say B L A C K I E’s vocals aren’t as commanding and forceful, if anything the startling clarity and emotional range of them makes them more commanding; indeed, it’s downright disquieting to hear B L A C K I E at a near whisper. Especially since it’s followed by the blaring sax freakout of “Position Targeted,” where B L A C K I E’s voice is another knife stab in the mix, trying to cut through the flesh and get to the squishy parts.
Some critics and fans have written off B L A C K I E in the past as one note, all rage and violence and spittle, but Remains is too powerful and diverse of a statement to be dismissed. Though it is not a hopeful work, Remains is inspiring because of how well it takes emotions that can be debilitating, like fear and panic and hate and anger and hurt and sorrow and desire and disappointment, and distills them into a primal scream with a viable spectrum of feeling. When we survive this mess, it will be in part because of works like Remains, art that refused to let you feel alone and ineffectual, that refused to withhold the intensity of emotion.
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