Music Reviews

Subtle ExitingARM

(Lex) Buy it from Insound Rating - 9/10

Over the course of their last two albums – 2003’s drifting yet focused A New White and 2006’s furiously frantic For Hero: For Fool – the Anticon-affiliated sextet Subtle crafted a surreal narrative of fictional rapper Hour Hero Yes. The first took naval-gazing into a beautifully abstracted place, constructing a free-flowing associative musical and lyrical narrative that remained buoyant and effortlessly engaging while remaining locked within its own self-constructed world. It took hip-hop’s ability to subsume any style to a quiet extreme – a multitude of genres made into a single distinctly personal one. For Hero: For Fool brought that narrative crashing into desperate engagement with the outside world – the inner world shattered as the outer world forced its way in, accompanied by ludicrously exciting beats and melodies that were a sort of shattered combination of musical detritus. Hip-hop and indie rock served as the main touchstones while ambient, electro, shoegaze, and a myriad other styles flitted about.

None of this background is strictly necessary for appreciation of the group’s latest release, but considering the healthy amount of lyrics and musical fragments snatched from these releases and reworked on ExitingARM, it helps. The newest album is a sort of thematic interpretation of the concept of the remix, except that it’s about a million times more exciting to listen to than such a description might suggest. It takes concepts from those records and forces them into dialogue with one another – the interior monologue returns and is forced to deal with the outer monologue forced upon it. When a lyric or melodic line returns, it contains thematic weight.

In interviews, lyricist Doseone has described it as the group’s “pop” album, but this is true only to a certain degree. In many ways it’s much less immediately accessible and attention grabbing than For Hero: For Fool – the melodic lines on ExitingARM are tricky and swerving, and the constant background textures and fragmented, yet driving beats complement them in strange, unpredictable ways. The overall sound is roughly that of a shoegaze album that got drunk and met some hip-hop friends who had just discovered their electro obsession, but also had a bunch of horns, winds, and other instruments in their backseat they were dying to try out. Textural drones drift in the background, and machine-gun lyrics appear from nowhere with a jolt of energy and are then subsumed. On standout Gonebones, neo-tribal woodwinds pop-up, The Crow is almost straight up poppy shoegaze until a rap sections drifts in, and closer Providence fragments an otherwise catchy vocal melody across a variety of drastically different vocal styles. This is an album in constant engagement with pop, approaching it and then retreating from it, simultaneously terrified of and embracing it.

Doseone’s lyrics are as abstracted as ever, and his increasingly stylized and virtuosic delivery continues to ensure that what might read as hopelessly dense and vague on paper comes out as engaging and exciting. His approach here is even more diverse than on his previously releases – he raps in a number of vocal registers, from his classic nasal butterfly to a low, urgent growl, and sings in a variety of styles. Many of the lyrics are taken from previous albums, but this isn’t a lazy technique. Rather, it's a way to present old concepts in new contexts. When Dose places the title lyric from A New White’s Red, White, and Blonde into album highlight Sick Soft Perfection and replaces the last word with “disco,” and then throws in the chorus from another song off of that album, he’s placing that album’s interior monologue into the context of a pop song that wants desperately to be at once exciting to the outer world while remaining personal, interesting, and fresh.

I recently saw the band live touring for this record, and onstage Doseone was more furiously involved in the show than I had ever seen him. He talked about the election, expressed excitement at the possibility of black president, and then made fun of the audience for not actually listening to hip-hop, but he was also frequently hilarious. In this context, the album makes even more sense – it walks the line between traditionally “white” music of indie rock, and the traditionally “black” music of hip-hop, and it recognizes both the difficulties and the excitement of such integration. This is music that takes its integrations of diverse styles and instrumentation with a combination of serious intensity and joyous exuberance, and realizes the social and artistic implications of its own actions. But for all that, the album avoids sounding like a graduate thesis – it’s too involved with its own creativity, too willing to throw a new element into the mix for that.

Honestly, though, half the time I have no idea what’s going on here, but that’s not a bad thing. The album is wonderfully unhinged, engaging with whatever it can grab at. It’s not as breathless as For Hero: For Fool, and its even denser, which makes ExitingARM a bit more difficult than that album, but it can still be a thrilling listen if you give it the time. It took a number of listens for me to even begin to “get” this thing. But after those listens, ExitingARM becomes wonderfully fulfilling. It’s a glorious mess of a record, reaching for everything at once, and hitting most of it. This is the sound of a fiercely ambitious band refusing to back away from its integrity – and the band knows it. They rap about it.