|Album Review: Blue Sky Black Death – Sirens|
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Over the last few years, West Coast production duo Blue Sky Black Death has built a reputation as one of the most unique and versatile names in hip-hop. While a producer's focus is usually either instrumental or vocal-based, BSBD excels at both, the pair having worked with numerous indie rappers and singers in addition to their vast catalogue of instrumental and sample-based releases. Their music is lush and organic, full of swelling strings and echoing guitars, a sound they sum up nicely with the word "glacial." And while they're firmly rooted in hip-hop, they often don't conjure that aesthetic, instead evoking a cinematic, shoegazey feeling.
Now Kingston, one half of the duo, has changed his name to 88 Ultra and released his debut solo LP, Sirens. While it's no great leap away from the sound we're accustomed to, Sirens stands up to anything in the BSBD discography, and explores some subtle shifts in approach that yield interesting results. Sirens is a fitting name for this collection of tracks; while they seem soothing and peaceful on the surface, there are gritty, dark elements hidden beneath. Like a canoe onto a still lake, the album pushes off with "Southern Nights," which floats along until downpitched rap vocals emerge, a surprisingly natural transition that also serves to anchor the track's weightlessness a little.
88 Ultra uses a wide array of guests on Sirens, both on the production side and as vocalists. His BSBD partner Young God contributes to two tracks, offering production assistance on "Higher Than You Know," and, interestingly, vocals on closing track "Spells." This makes one wonder if they've maybe sang on their own tracks in the past.
Most exciting, though, are the four songs with frequent BSBD collaborators Child Actor, a Chvrches-esque duo out of Connecticut. On "Oceans," Max Heath and Natalie Plaza weave together their lyrics of longing over Ultra's punchy rhythm and sky-sized atmospherics. "The Other Side" is maybe the album's best balancing of darkness and light, Plaza's angelic voice contrasted against the aggressive percussion. With so many great collaborations between these two pairs, it'd be nice to see them do an entire album together.
Blue Sky Black Death haven't gone anywhere, in fact, they just released Stoned & Dethroned, the latest in a series of collaborations with rapper Nacho Picasso. Sirens isn't a departure to another style of music, it's just an understandable outlet for 88 Ultra to do something on his own. It's also a testament to the pair's work ethic; they're always making new music, often dropping multiple releases in a year, releases that are both all over the hip-hop map and yet incredibly unified in their unique aesthetic. Considering how he manages to push their sound ahead here, 88 Ultra has established himself as a formidable producer in his own right, and it will be interesting to see where his next solo outing takes us. Sirens is available now through 88 Ultra's own Ultra Glacial Records.