Underground Hip-Hop isn’t so underground anymore, leveling the playing field a bit more for artists who have much more to do and say. And with that said, they’re back! But they’ve never left us. On the heels of last year’s Czar Noir, Esoteric, 7L and the Rebel INS returns for another go as CZARFACE. The trio’s new album, Czarmageddon (Silver Age Records), 12 tracks of unrelenting CZAR only this time around the group branches out further with songs much more subdued musically like “Can It Be?” and “Bob LaCzar,” and even stepping out of their comfort zone with the anthemic one-two punk step of “Big em Up (feat. Lion Eye).” CZARFACE does come with the heat we’re all familiar with, at times hard-hitting filled with a venomous bite like “Damien’s Dinner Time, and at others, melodic with a heavy bounce, much like “Fearless & Inventive (feat. Kool Keith).” There are some tracks here like “Boogie DefMix” which seems more like a throwback to earlier days of the genre’s birth but then “Czarv Wolfman” comes in chomping on the bit. Czarmageddon, the group’s 11th album (not counting the MFDOOM and Ghostface collaborations) continues to meet expectations and will have fans and all listeners wondering if there’s anything CZARFACE can’t do.
I find it a bit…odd. The L.A. outfit Tombstones In Their Eyes has been linked and tagged as a shoegaze act but I’m sure many may not actually see it that way. The band has much more to offer than one of the last few aged genres of our time. The group recently released the A Higher Place EP (Kitten Robot) this week and it’s bursting with imposing tracks throughout it. Throughout the release, there are innumerable amounts of psychedelic swirls, but it’s probably the bold harmonies from song to song that stand out the most. These are things that literally can’t be ignored, considering how powerful they make themselves within the mix. The opening “I Know Why” is a great starting point, blended with epic guitar interplay. The title track, filled with distant vocals, a driving rhythm, and over-the-top guitars providing both sonic splashes & melodic notes, all over the atmospheric song. But it’s “I’m Not Living In Fear,” at over 6 minutes and 30 seconds, with its repetitive vocals and structure that’s simply hypnotic. It has a thickness that’s overwhelming but welcomed. At just six songs, A Higher Place offers a lot of different emotions.
There’s Hip-Hop, and then there’s HIP-HOP. Real always recognize real and for the most part, commercial radio has killed much of it, but the underground has always remained ripe for the picking. There are those that have continued to flourish creatively as the mainstream continues to ignore them. For years Uncommon Nasa has released numerous albums; solo, The Presence, White Horse, and his work has only gotten better with age. Guillotine Crowns is yet another project both he and Chicago emcee Short Fuze are a part of but both have collaborated with one another in the past. Nasa handled production duties on three releases so it seems it was only a matter of time before the two would become a duo.
Following 2020s The First Stand, Guillotine Crowns returns with the new Hills To Die On (Uncommon Records) and things are bigger, badder, and deffer for the 21st century. “Now They Know It” opens with a sample taken from the 1979 cult classic, The Warriors, and the song stays true to the film’s gritty nature as both emcees volley rhymes, clashing against one another with lyricism revolving around loyalty & paranoia. But it’s the guttery backdrop that will keep you intrigued. The song leads directly into the bouncy “Art Dealers,” filled with lyrical highs and lows with a piano line that repeats itself throughout but it’s barely noticeable. It’s consistent and fiery. “Scope Of The Guillotine (feat. Jyroscope)” is a bit different here. Nasa’s production, while still influenced by the urban grime we’ve become familiarized with, is a bit cleaner. Chicago emcee Jyroscope guests here and fits in seamlessly, matching lyrical flow with the Guillotine.
There’s an abundance of catch-and-release vibes to get down to throughout the album, much like “Horseman Armour” which features L.A.’s Gajah and the U.K.’s Duke01 of Lost Sons. All four emcees deliver hearty vocals but it’s the rapid-tongued Gajah that stands out. It may just be coincidental because the pause right before he drops his first words may be somewhat dramatic, but fitting. Moving over to “Tape Deck (feat. Tracy Jones),” this is the song that’s the odd man out. It’s cinematic to an extent and you can’t help but imagine its Stranger Things-like Hip-Hop vibe. Bear with me. Musically it’s odd, as is the show and yes, the series may be an era piece but it could work, we just have to suspend disbelief. But it’s the disjointed “KILLER (feat. SKECH185)” that entertains curiosity. The track moves at a malignantly slow pace, and it’s not pretty, but nor should it be. It comes with heady messages, filled with metaphors and SKECH185 delivers a gruff and monstrous delivery. The song is followed by the morose “Generosity” cautiously moving in serenity yet filled with doubt and melancholia. Fuze and Nasa eloquently deliver rhymes that question, bordering and flirting on the existential but firmly rooted in reality.
With Hills To Die On, it seems both Short Fuze and Uncommon Nasa find their collective stride as Guillotine Crowns. Even on the closing “Hills” the venom in their vocals delivers the fight in their bellies. We should expect more from Guillotine Crowns and welcome it because right here, they’re bringing the heat with this fiery collection of tracks!
Winged Wheel is made up of Cory Plump (Spray Paint, Whitney Johnson (Matchess), Fred Thomas, and Matthew Rolin, four musicians who have had experience in other groups, with Thomas possibly being the most recognizable. Sprawled throughout the country, the members have coalesced as Winged Wheel, releasing the LP No Island (12XU). It seems the new effort has allowed the band members to step out of their proverbial comfort zone, and spread their wings so to speak, for something…interesting.
The group never seems to move in one singular motion, enough to pigeonhole it as a singular or binary unit. Launching into a heady post-punk “Monsella,” we can’t make assumptions about Winged Wheel. The band certainly covers all ground with its frenetic drums, cascading guitars making their way through an array of effects, as the bass maneuvers through the haze with just a couple of notes, leaving room for Johnson’s breathy vocals and the band’s layered instruments. But soon after there’s a different kind of appeal with its dreamy shoegaze-like “Drinking With Flies.” The rhythm is encapsulated with washes of keyboard in the backdrop while guitar notes reverberate throughout. Johnson’s airy voice sweetly coos allowing its echo to become one with every other instrument. It’s hypnotic but so are many of the rest of the songs on the release. One thing is clear though, the band understands not every song may require vocals, allowing songs like the brilliant “Central Ceiling” to take on a life all its own. Guitars and keyboards mesh as one, as they crescendo in and out. The melody is a beauteous monster, built with power and subtlety.
It’s clear the group has tossed conventionality out the window, allowing every member’s individuality a voice. With the 2-minute “Lasso Motel,” experimental aspects linger within and without. There’s direction but it’s free-flowing and storms through the atmosphere. The band does hit directly and hard while keeping a semblance of gentleness with “Grey On Grey.” Drums are the catalyst, while guitars spur on the chemical reaction. And Johnson’s voice? Well, again shimmers right over everything here.
Winged Wheel delivers a great deal of beauty with No Island, allowing listeners a look into it’s musical explorations that are fitted within post-punk, shoegaze, electronic, and experimental sounds. The band never fits neatly into one category, instead culling from an assortment and finding its own niche within the rock continuum. It’s a fantastic ride.