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El-P - Fantastic Damage

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Artist: El-P

Album: Fantastic Damage

Label: Def Jux

Review date: May. 28, 2002

Sounds of El-P: cheese-grater harsh on metal skin, Mad-Max in Thunderdome, robot screams, Tijuana-turned Escape from L.A., Bladerunner New York nightmares.

Promobot 3000 says: this is frightening. Are the vocals mixed too low? Maybe it’s just hard to hear the words in a nuclear winter landscape of mile-high cities, I don’t know. “Man you just don’t get it.” Even the harmonious moments dare you to understand this: it’s El-P as Neo inviting you to the inner-spaces of the Matrix, where people are machines or machines are people or… Even 1985 loses its shell-toes and knee-patches nostalgia and is put through the meat-grinder of bleeping (screaming) computers. This is frightening. “For the love of god run.” And of course god would have to be lower-case in this soundscape.

I’m struck: it sounds like Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele, hung-over “[writing it’s] own eulogy with cocaine hands.” But we’re all tired of RZA comparisons.

El-P remains angry at the world, and scared of the world; the older brother peeking from behind the doorjamb at the parents fighting, unsure how to communicate what he sees so he does it with harsh vocals set to even crueler music, lashing out. But even for all its sonic ferociousness, this is a more mature El-P than Funcrusher gave us, more able and willing to make his voice heard.

“When the city burns down I’m gonna go to Disneyworld.” Is this Nero with a violin or “not a crook” Nixon with his arms over his head? I don’t think he wants it to be clear.

With Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein El-P elaborated his musical self. This is that being with its wrists slit bleeding all over our ears: it’s terrible beautiful, the fantastic damage of the 21st-century American postmodern subject looking in the mirror. I’m not sure I ever would have thought it possible, but El-P and Aesop Rock on “Delorean” embody a Sacco-Vanzetti moment—dangerous, very dangerous. This is an Olaudah Equiano condemnation of society: nothing too overt, just implicit critique in the self-as-music being presented. This is frightening, perfect frightening.

“This is for kids worried about the apocalypse. Do something.” You can start by listening, one might suppose, or realize in listening that the apocalypse might have already happened. When El-P speaks as a Vietnam Vet remembering orders to burn villages I wonder how far outside himself he had to go to find that voice—especially when the album tour and tour of duty become the same by the end of the song, it’s a horrible dream, but it’s like a car crash that you can’t stop looking at, too. Fantastic Damage seems to include all the terrible truths of our world, past and future; it seems to play a game with sorrow and pain, to force the listener to stare at the ugly society that is in the mirror every morning; it’s frightening, but wonderfully so.

By Daniel Thomas-Glass

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