When Cannibal Ox released their first album “The Cold Vein” in 2001, it became an instant classic thanks to the unanimous praise it received from critics and fans. The strange electronic sound and sometimes abstract content was a breath of fresh air in the early noughties; a time when many Hip-Hop Artists began gravitating toward an overtly overground sound. Fans of Cannibal Ox have had to wait almost fourteen years for a follow-up to their début album, and finally “Blade Of The Ronin” has been released.
This album is in some ways very different and at the same time very similar to “The Cold Vein”. Thankfully, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega’s flows have remained unchanged and the duo’s rhymes feel like they’ve been plucked right from the first album. With such a long gap between releases, that’s exactly what the fans want; Vast Aire giving a slow and almost speech-like delivery (coupled with some surreal braggadocio verses) and Vordul Mega giving a more complex and faster style (and amazing breath control with his continuous lyrics). The main difference with “Blade Of The Ronin” is the lack of El-P’s skewed and über-electronic sounds, instead Bill Cosmiq produces almost the entire album and brings a more melodic and slightly trippy soundscape rather than a spacey-electronic vibe of their début LP.
The opening track “Opposite Of Desolate” is a perfect example of Bill Cosmiq’s production. It features distorted vocal samples and vinyl scratches, it does incorporate electronic sounds, but not to the extent of “The Cold Vein”. Tracks like “Water” sport a hard industrial sound, and “Carnivorous” feature distorted synths and electronic wails, but these elements aren’t as straining to the ears as “The Cold Vein”. While some may not like this new aesthetic, after fourteen years I think that moving on from El-P’s pioneering sound was to be expected, and the most important thing is that the duo have remained true to themselves.
There’s not much point in breaking down the album song by song. Save to say that the LP can be listened to from beginning to end and without skipping a single track. With five skits (including Intro and Interlude) on a nineteen track release, this makes for a tolerable amount of breaks without them impacting on the flow of the entire piece. “The Horizon” even features a nice euphoric melody juxtaposed against a hard thumping rhythm, and in my opinion it would have been great if Aire and Mega had rapped over this beat. Producers out there should take note, this is how Interludes and skits should sound; sparse, to the point, interesting, and a pleasure to listen to.
So if you’re a fan of Cannibal Ox or underground Hip-Hop in general, you should definitely listen to this album. If you prefer that classic Ox sound check out the track “Harlem Knights”, if you want gritty and dirty beats check out “Iron Rose”, if you want a great chorus check out “Sabertooth”…
“…you gotta dodge venom, stay strong like a snake charmer
metalloid armour concealed under mid-winter Bombers
cold world but we still getting stronger
live good, dodge venom, snake charmer”
…And if you want an instantly listen-able and hugely enjoyable song, you should play “The Power Cosmiq” which is without a doubt one of the best tracks on the album. The song is a great showcase for Cosmiq’s talents with the hard beat and strings against a backdrop of haunting, operatic-cum-ethnic vocal samples. “The Power Cosmiq” is just a beautiful Hip-Hop song and lyrics like “You ingrates, know we’ve been great” also add to the greatness of this track… Wack MC’s out there should definitely be compelled to “drop to their knees and show gratitude” after hearing this joint.
That’s not to say that this album is perfect, it does contain some average tracks. There’s “The Fire Rises” which contains more of a “mainstream” sound (mainly due to the chorus). There’s also “The Vision” which despite being a great song, sounds a tad radio-friendly thanks once again to the chorus. And unfortunately the track “Gotham (Ox City)” begins by quoting the worst film of the Dark Knight Trilogy (but the beat and lyrics more than make up for it). Having said that, these three tracks are still worth listening to, and when compared to some other Rappers out there today; Cannibal Ox’ worst songs sound like some of their contemporaries’ best. And while I’m on the subject of today’s Rappers, I have to mention “Thunder In July”, which is a great example of blending accessible (and even radio-friendly) Hip-Hop with a dose of credibility. I just wish more Rap Artists who want a taste of stardom create tracks like this; with the right marketing and promotion we could have a complimentary and satisfactory balance of Hip-Hop and Hip-Pop, and we could finally put an end to all the bubblegum trash that’s out there.
My only other criticism, is that the final track “Salvation” is unfortunately too short for a closing song. Although it’s impressive with an uplifting melody, with it’s three minute-something length, the album finishes too abruptly and unceremoniously, but I guess that’s just a minor quibble; overall “Blade Of The Ronin” is the best album I’ve heard so far this year.
If you were expecting more of El-P’s weird production, then you might be slightly disappointed (except for maybe “Harlem Knights”). This album is not as surreal or staccato as “The Cold Vein”, in fact it sounds much less quirky and much more accessible (whilst thankfully remaining firmly underground). Instead, the majority of album sounds more like something by Jedi Mind Tricks or Outerspace circa 2002-2004. But production aside, Cannibal Ox’ style and delivery remain the same, and this album is definitely a must for any real fan of the Hip-Hop genre. “Blade Of The Ronin” is therefore an example of genuine Hip-Hop; the way it’s supposed to sound without the corruptness of the mainstream. This album is proof that genuine, credible, underground Hip-Hop is still out there as long as you’re willing to look for it.
Sharp As A Blade.
This was a really good review. I’m actually kind of surprised that you would put this here seeing as how the majority of other critics seemed underwhelmed by the album.
Thanks for the reply. I don’t really pay much attention to other critics; and this was my genuine first impression. I think most people’s negative opinions were formed by comparing “Blade Of The Ronin” directly with “The Cold Vein”, but if they just listened to this album in context with other contemporary music, it’s pretty obvious that this was a great album.