'Eh' To All That: Death Grips And The Search For Meaning In A Bottomless Pit

Meredith Graves on the latest album from the fearsome trio Death Grips

Book of Revelations, Verses 2-3: And he opened the bottomless pit ... And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.

Six years and six full albums in, Death Grips remain one of the most confusing and exciting bands to ever exist. Formed in 2010 by singer Stefan Burnett (a.k.a. MC Ride), producer and multi-instrumentalist Andy Morin, and drummer Zach Hill (Hella, Nervous Cop), Death Grips pose unique questions in a moment clogged with guitar-band clones. Is it rap, industrial, or hardcore? Is it playful, boyish shit talk, or profound and purposeful nihilism?

Or does there lurk, between the sounds of Burnett’s skinned-alive barking, Hill’s machine-gun drum triggers, and all that dial-up modem Max Headroom interference, something very real, very dark, and very sinister?

Bottomless Pit, the band’s latest full-length album, sounds as cavernous and isolating as its title would have you believe. It could be a reference to the Book of Revelations, but the mention of "helter skelter" in "Spikes" points toward the supposed Death Valley hideout Charles Manson had planned for his family — the "bottomless pit" from whence they would emerge after a global race war destroyed almost all of civilization. This is the fearsome magic exclusive to Death Grips. They make music that sounds like everything they reference in their lyrics, from genocide to a salvia trip.

From pop-up ads to drone strikes, factory farms to sales floors, all the way down to the disruptive, Pavlovian technology we all carry in our pockets, life in 2016 guarantees being bombarded on all sides, at all times, by mechanical noise. Death Grips greet all that and suicidal ideations with a flat, unfeeling "Eh," the new album's centerpiece and arguably their most melodic song to date. In a world of extreme noise and performative violence, extreme indifference is a radical move.

Instrumentally, Death Grips ink a light through line from Swans heaviness and the angular post-punk of Jesus Lizard through the exacting barrage of John Zorn. Burnett’s vocals are incomparable: violent, half-screamed rapping punctuated, especially on Bottomless Pit, with occasional moments of something that could be called humor (“This asshole be at pussy church”) if it wasn’t genuinely scary. Sometimes it sounds like techno, sometimes it sounds like a snuff film set in an auto parts factory. All of which makes “Eh" seem more personal and terrifying than most if not all of Death Grips’s back catalogue — like quiet during wartime, it is isolating and unexpected.

Rather than exploiting the imagery of violence and sadism like so many button-pushing punks before them, Death Grips use their language, parking at the intersection of word, meaning, and sound. It’s sensory overload via horrifying mantra. It's shock treatment and MKUltra.

MC Ride, the program’s patient zero, is notoriously an incredibly private person, so it’s always been difficult to suss out how much of his writing for Death Grips is autobiographical, the natural lens through which we analyze lyrics from the punk-and-or-hardcore-ish diaspora. This is why “Eh,” a comparatively quiet song on a record that makes many direct references to the noise of war — bullets, cavalry, genocide, air raids, dive bombers, mass executions — comes across as having actual personhood and borderline warmth. When someone whose normal vocal register indicates that at any point he may rip your head off and shit down your throat writes a song about how neutral-leaning-bored he is about pretty much everything, including his own band, it almost sounds sweet.

But can we, or should we, trust that? Are Death Grips to be trusted in any sense? According to participants on /r/deathgrips, undoubtedly.

When Bottomless Pit leaked, a percentage of fans refused to listen on the grounds that the leak was low-quality. Even more opted to wait and listen to the record on release day out of respect for the band. Though Death Grips leaking their own material has previously served as one link in a chain of other almost-funny stunts (most notably their predisposition to flake on their own shows with zero notice, sending a CD player and suicide note in their place), fans seemed to know that it was not intentional this time. They were right: The final version of Bottomless Pit came out only after a 1-800 number posted on Twitter around 4 a.m. ET led to a new single and an answering machine service. Death Grips now have more hard proof that they’re respected by their allegiant fan base (though it’s unlikely that they care), and fans get the satisfaction of having been right, as the higher-quality release really does sound better.

Sonically, the album is closer to their early efforts on 2012's The Money Store than any of their more recent experimental releases — that is, it’s more palatable and identifiable as music in most cases. It may also indicate the band’s move toward records that will translate better when played live than anything off the unfeasibly complex and difficult 2015 double album The Powers That B, for example.

“Hot Head,” “BB Poison,” and “Bubbles Buried in This Jungle,” already marked as fan favorites, have a similar mid-fast BPM and timbre. This will make for a seamless transition if played back-to-back live, tracks merging into one another like weeks or months spent in an induced coma, feeling as anonymous as the band members’ blank t-shirts and jeans, as anonymous as the band’s refusal to do press; and, in another sense, as anonymous as uniformed jailers, allowing the band as a unit to step back into the darkness as a series of shocks are administered.

Listen to Bottomless Pit long enough, and you might start to imagine waking up in the sketchy basement from Death Grips' Interview 2016 video, brainwashed — only to hear from your anonymous captors exactly how they feel about whether you listened to the leak and at what bitrate, whether you secured the limited edition vinyl, or just how much you love them: "Like ... eh."