By Nathan DeCorte
With each passing minute, the atmosphere grows a little more anxious. The crowd started to gather in front of the stage about an hour ago. Death Grips is notorious for cancelling shows or even entire tours with no prior warning. Looking from side to side, I’m surprised at how young the crowd is. Many of the kids flanking me can’t patronize a bar. Not that they could care less. They have a much more important item on their agenda tonight. Every time a staff member jumps on stage to make some adjustment the crowd surges. Then, with no announcement or fanfare, Andy Morin, Zach Hill and MC Ride abruptly emerge from behind a curtain. There’s no opening act. There’s no banter. No time wasted.
The crowd explodes at the sight of them. In an instant, the throngs of fans around me surge forward. As everyone struggles to keep two feet on the ground and at least one eye on the stage, the crowd has become an ocean of bodies, ebbing and flowing with constant struggle. Periodically a gap would open up, allowing a blast of fresh air into the murky depths. Then, it was back down into the pit.
The music is vicious and visceral. The sound system is muddied, perhaps failing under the strain of Morin’s surging beats or Ride’s hysteric shouts. Ride’s lyrical work for the group has lauded for bleak, cryptic and even apocalyptic content. And he somehow manages to exude these same qualities as a live performer. His rap style, a mix of hysteric shouts, hateful snarls and hypnotic chants, is so intense that it alone would leave a lesser performer exhausted. Ride matches this style with a terrifying physicality. Lean and muscled, he’s like a bald, bearded Iggy Pop with the energy of a cornered animal. His movements are as chaotic and unpredictable as the music. One minute he stands fast and formidable, challenging the audience, the next he’s on his knees eliciting cries of existential terror and confusion. A few times through their set I locked eyes with him, and it was like staring into the eyes of the the apocalypse. At the height of fan-favorite songs like “Guillotine,” “Takyon” and “No Love,” Ride worked himself up into a frenzy. At times he looks like he’s going into a seizure. Ride gets lost in what he was doing and lets the raw emotion of the moment possess him.
Drummer Zack Hill is the pulse of the group. Already well known for his work in the math rock outfit Hella, Hill matches Ride’s ferocity on the drum kit. A versatile musician, he has no trouble going from technical and refined to furious and rhythmic at a moment’s notice.
If Ride’s vocals are the muscle of Death Grips and Hill’s drums are the bone, then Andy Morin’s electronic compositions are the sinews that hold everything together. His spectrum ranges from bold and bleak to soft and sensuous to pure, fiery wrath.
For an hour these three shared their art with us. Then they left. As abruptly as they had come. The atmosphere after the show was exuberant. The kids who had packed the hall filtered out onto the streets. All grins and exhausted embraces. Death Grips is a rare thing. There have been many groups before them that explore the darker aspects of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be capable of anything. But while many of them will show you a glimpse of that sense of danger that lurks in the back of your skull, very few can threaten to take you over that edge entirely. Death Grips may come closer than any other at doing just that. The sensation of being packed into that hall, your ears flooded with anger, desire and futility. Where you have to struggle and gasp for air amongst all the other souls going through the same experience. It can make you feel alive in a very unique way.