Do you ever hear an album that makes absolutely no sense, yet at the same time, makes perfect sense? Have you ever felt that duality, that stark contrast, that perfect clash when listening to something? Because for me, 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix', the sophomore record from Injury Reserve, is exactly what that is; it is something that makes absolutely no sense, but it makes perfect sense. This is an album that is grief personified, laid out and dissected, to a horrifically accurate degree.
I guess before going into this album, it is suffice to say that I was a fucking huge fan of Injury Reserve before this record. Their mixtape 'Floss' is a perfect example of Experimental Hip Hop at its most aggressive and lively, as was their self titled album that came out in 2018. It combined the technically fuckery of electronic music with hard hitting verses that I felt was what would propel experimental Hip Hop into the mainstream, with songs like 'All This Money', 'Jailbreak The Tesla', 'Gravy and Biscuits' and so many more sounding like they were DESTINED to be on the radio. If there was going to be an act to make a change in the genre they were in, it was Injury Reserve, and I loved it. I was actually able to catch them live a couple of years ago in 2019, and it was, by far, one of the best shows I have EVER been to. The strobes, the performances, the production, the LOUDNESS? It was a hellish yet cathartic show, and I loved every second of it.
Looking back at it, i'm extremely fortunate to have seen that era of the group, because, sadly, events happened in 2020 that would alter the future of the band forever.
After personal loss in Ritchie with the T's life, core member Stepa J. Groggs passed away. To what, wasn't specified. All fans knew was that he left behind a caring family and a legacy of great music in his wake. He was one of the pieces of Injury Reserve that worked the BEST, and his charming presence always made an Injury Reserve song an Injury Reserve song. To see him go, as a fan, was a tragedy, and to even think about how other band members were feeling was impossible to imagine. At this point, personally, fans tend to make assumptions about what the future of a band or an act is based on a death of a core member. "They won't continue", I thought. "They just can't! That's...that's Groggs!". Removing such a vital member in such a horrifically sudden way confirmed that there couldn't be a future for Injury Reserve.
How dare I think that they didn't have the strength to pull it off.
Injury Reserves new album, the aptly titled 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix', is a microscopic look at the feelings of Ritchie and Parker, in all of it's hellish, frantic, almost overbearing nature. This album isn't just talking about grief, it IS grief. To get abstract, there's no other way to describe this album apart from haunted. Not haunting, haunted. It feels like the ghosts of people past are in the echoes of these songs, like a faint whisper amongst the chaos of life. Every low hum, every bass hit, ever noise, every verse, ever sample all feels like watching spirits fly through my room as I listen. As silly as it is to say, a song like 'Wild Wild West' feels like you can hear the dead trying to crawl through the production and save itself from fading away, with its growling drum work, it's glitched out noise, it's morphing vocal line. Everything builds and destroys itself, like someone fading away into obscurity. Maybe that's disrespectful to put in such plain, matter of fact manners, but I do feel like not saying it lessens the impact that this album had on me.
This isn't really a 'fun' hip hop album. Unlike previous Injury Reserve ventures, this album not only lives in the abstract, but also absorbs the uncanny. The emphasis of unfamiliar beats and electronic production creates some of the most aggressively cathartic and original Glitch Hop i've EVER heard, with some of the most heart-wrenching beats being slapped with these despondent lyrics, abstractly talking about fear, death, grief and loss. It's tough to listen to, especially in tracks like the absolutely harrowing 'Top Picks for You', describing the algorithmic state of life and trying to comprehend how, in a world that feels so controlled by technology and algorithms, that something so horrible like the death of someone close can even happen. The lyrics are tough to stomach, and the music doesn't make it any better, but if there was any album to make that kind of statement and make it approachable, it would be this one.
Sometimes, when music gets really overbearing to me, I describe it as 'self imploding' or 'like it's destroying itself', but no. This legitematly feels like the band took the tapes, took the recordings and smashed them in a blur of fury. Every track here feels like something is wrong, and that anxiety and horrifying catharsis is just perfectly translated into these sonical attacks. I don't even really want to describe a lot of these tracks because...well, they feel indescribable. What am I supposed to say about the fury in 'Footwork in a Forest Fire', the assault to the senses of 'Superman That', the Peak Music reaching 'Outside', the somber ballad 'Postpostpartum', the fucked up 'Bye Storm'? "These songs are crazy!"? "These are glitched out anthems of a broken group of people!"? There isn't really anything LIKE this album that has come out that's this dense, this atmospheric, this hard hitting, this bone rattlingly earnest, at least not this year. It's almost incomphericencable. I get why someone wouldn't like this, because in all due respect, this can easily be mistaken for gibberish.
...but it's not. It's the exact opposite of gibberish. It's one of the most earnest and beautiful records of the year in my opinion. It's ugliness is it's beauty. It doesn't work, it doesn't make sense, and that's WHY it makes sense. This album is a smoldering fire that grows and devours you, slowly, right as you put it on. It's almost like going to a funeral for a friend that you loved with all your heart, and watching the funeral be slowly set on fire. As you sit there, you feel the earth shaking underneath you. You look out at the coffin, and among the smoke, among the flames, you see a picture of that friend, burning. At peace. You smile slowly, shed a tear, and close your eyes, letting the flames overtake you, and feeling the burn of everything that's happened in your life climb your skin. Some run. Some try to put the fire out. Other don't even notice. You just accept it. And as you feel like things can't get any better/worse, the storm comes in. It washes away that fire, and your left with ash, coal and a new sense of life.
It rains, it pours...but damn, it's really pouring.
Favorite Jams: Outside, Top Picks For You, Knees
Lest Favorite: ...did you see the score? I guess SS San Francisco if I had to pick, but that song is amazing too!
Above all else, make sure that these guys get the love that they deserve. Make sure that you buy their albums. Make sure that you support these guys. If you love music, then show that love with some hard cold cash (if you can of course). Personally, i'm waking up at 3am to cop the vinyl of this. It's tied for my album of the year, but lets see what happens.