The Anti-Bling Kings

Although Vast spells out Cannibal Ox's creed with the lines "I guess that's why I was born/To recognize the beauty of a rose's thorn," Cold Vein isn't relentlessly grim. There's also a sense of deadly frolic, pure linguistic sport. On "Raspberry Fields," Vast kills his battle-rhyme opponent repeatedly in successive reincarnations. This "scissor tongue" MC with a "mouthful of parables" prides himself on the writerly art of elegant variation: When he drops the verse "The sample's the flesh and the beat's the skeleton/You got beef but there's worms in your Wellington/I'll put a hole in your skull and extract the skeleton," he immediately corrects himself ("Oh my God, said a word twice") and then repeats the whole verse, changing the second skeleton to gelatin. Vordul favors breathless sprints of assonance-dense rhyming such as "Stress got my chest a mess/breathless and vexed/trying to escape/from outa the depths of hell's nest" that suits his blurting flow, a logorrheic lockstep that often seems only notionally connected to the groove. Vast's more ruminative and languid, crisply enunciating choice lines like "The beat be trying to sex me and marry me/I'm talking white picket fence and a family."

El-P's sonic choices are stunning throughout—the galactic funk of "Battle for Asgard," the dank futurism of "Vein," the melted-candle sample-slurry of "B-Boys Alpha." On that Forced Exposure tip again, "Raspberry Fields" recalls Butthole Surfers with its slowed-down vocals and dying-walrus guitarwail, while "Real Earth" has me flashing on Flipper's cosmic dirge "Survivors of the Plague." El-P's tour de force comes with the closing songs "Pigeon" and "Scream Phoenix" (a hidden track). The avian imagery is a thread through Cold Vein—pigeons represent the world's small fry, the dowdy downtrodden, while the chant "Scream phoenix!" is V & V's grimy equivalent of Curtis Mayfield's "Move on up!": imagination soaring free of reality's chains. Through a kind of willed alchemy of soul, every pigeon can metamorphize into a glittering phoenix. El-P matches these epic concepts. "Pigeon" sounds literally Gothic: Rome after the barbarians, temples sacked and torched. A grandiose horn fanfare conjures the twilight of empire, and Neil Hagerty-like guitar rains down on the smoking embers. "Scream Phoenix" is a woozy delirium of just off-key angelic chorale and a looped tic of beautiful blues guitar. Like "Feed Me" closing Tricky's Maxinquaye, the final track is the mirage of the promised land glimpsed after strugglin' through the valley of despond.

Wormholed futurism with a mouthful of parables
photo: Courtesy of Definitive Jux
Wormholed futurism with a mouthful of parables

Details

Cannibal Ox
The Cold Vein
Def Jux
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If there's one drawback to Cold Vein, it's that the music's so strong and strange it almost overshadows the words; at the same time, if you focus on Vordul & Vast's dense verbals with anything like the intensity they deserve and demand, it's hard to wallow in the sonix. (Separate dub and a cappella versions would be a dream.) Then again, this split-focus effect only exacerbates Cold Vein's sensations of disorientation and out-of-jointness. After 74 minutes, you'll need to lie down and unclench your brain.

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