"Fivehundredfifteen Percent," a track from "Volume 3," the latest offering from Des Moines-IA based crew Maxilla Blue, begins with the following profession of hometown loyalty: "Indivisibly dedicated to the Des Moines pavement/that's where we slay men/of every race, creed, and MC pedigree." (For those who don't know, 515 is the area code for central Iowa.) This dedication might baffle heads outside the state of Iowa - and even some within - that have yet to notice the blips of nascent Iowa hip hop on their radar. As an Iowa transplant that has spent a number of years living in Minnesota, I've come to expect screw-faced reactions whenever I use the words "Iowa" and "hip hop" in the same sentence, primarily due to the fact that many consider Iowa to be as culturally remote and desolate as it is geographically. This preconception casts a long shadow and adds another rung to the ladder Iowa artists must climb as they struggle to reach as many ears as possible.
Maxilla Blue has been steadily scaling that ladder since the group formed in 2006, and has contributed significantly to the growth of Iowa hip hop in the process. Producer Aeon Grey and MC Asphate Woodhavet began their collaboration based on a mutual desire to experiment with the rules and conventions of their genre, and started work on a collection of songs that ultimately became the first Maxilla Blue record. Recognizing the importance of what a DJ/turntablist brings to the table, in the studio and on stage, the duo brought DJ Touchnice into the fold shortly before their debut was released on Central Standard Records in 2008. Aeon Grey and Twin Cities native Joe Williams created the Central Standard label in order to provide an outlet for Aeon Grey projects, including Aeon's solo work, Maxilla Blue, and the Des Moines-based Bum Rap collective. Maxilla Blue's sophomore album, "Volume 2," followed in 2010, and "Volume 3" dropped in March of this year as a split release between Central Standard and Chicago underground heavyweights Galapagos4.
Visually, "Volume 3" grabs your attention with its intriguing album cover. Anyone who buys a lot of music has been tempted at one time or another to purchase an album based solely on its cover art. This album will likely be such a temptation for diggers, collectors, and music buyers in general, due to its distinctive, unconventional imagery, courtesy of Mayday Design. Featuring a dark, multi-colored Leviathan rearing its head against a soft, light background, the face of this album is an appropriate visual representation of a group of artists who pride themselves on challenging listeners by side stepping standard formulas and hollow rap cliches.
"Volume 3" begins with a contemplative tone similiar to that of its predecessor. The first two tracks - "Quest" and "Saliva Live" (fans might recognize the latter from previous live performances) - are solid and engaging, and provide a recap of where Maxilla has been before they set out to explore new sonic territory. After this initial warm up, the album starts building momentum with "Lego Blocks," a track that features Asphate's insistent, literate flow on top of a steady beat that induces a serious head nod. As the title implies, the lyrics reflect on the process of deconstructing one's own ideas and beliefs in order to achieve new perspectives and continued growth. Asphate's complex wordplay is a key element of Maxilla Blue's music, and one that rewards listeners who are willing to take the time to deceipher his lyrics and build an interpretation upon multiple listens. (Note: the lyrics for "Volume 3" were only made available in a limited fashion as part of the Galapagos4 preorder bonus material.)
"Lego Blocks" is followed by one of my favorite Aeon Grey productions, an excellent instrumental titled "Grey's Yawn." The track begins with keys playing a spectral melody over the shifting meters of a chilled out, loping jazz beat. Distorted textures gradually make their way into the mix before the beat transforms, becoming more aggressive over a back drop of thunderstorm effects, while the opening melody continues to float in the background, creating a polyrhythmic contrast. The arrangement is unpredictable and the overall vibe is very cinematic. One of the most notable aspects of "Volume 3" is Aeon Grey's growth as a producer, and this track epitomizes that growth. The cinematic quality of "Grey's Yawn" continues with "The Serpent's Twist," another highlight with its dusky jazz bar ambience complete with the sounds of drunken conversations, glasses clinking, and a lazy trumpet, as Asphate dissects weak-minded artists and crews.
"Fire & Rain" is a bluesy, percussive instrumental that isn't quite as compelling as others on the album, but it provides contrast and levity before the mysterious, hypnotizing "Lost In Composition." These two tracks combined run 3:22 and display the efficiency of expression that is another hallmark of the group's work. In fact, the entire album runs approximately 40 minutes. This is refreshing for those of us old enough to remember when records regularly clocked in at 45 minutes or less, when emphasis was squarely placed on quality over quantity.
Next is another personal favorite, a mostly-instrumental track titled "Crane Style," that sounds something like hip hop psychedelia. It features the sounds of violin, hand percussion, and soulful backing vocals, with words from Asphate and turntable flourishes from Touchnice periodically wandering in and out of the mix. "Crane Style" is followed by one of the catchiest songs ever heard on a Maxilla Blue album, "Perfect Mal-F." (There seems to be some debate about the proper pronunciation of this title.) A strong groove carries the verses and Aeon takes it higher with a well-placed guitar sample during the chorus. The frenetic, quick-hitting "Retrogression" keeps things moving and sets up the album's last instrumental, "Upon Descent." Though the overall sound is very different, this track rivals "Grey's Yawn" in terms of dynamics and arrangment with its unexpected changes and guitar textures. The instrumentals on "Volume 3" are more developed and integrated more successfully than on previous Maxilla Blue releases, and combined with greater contribution from Touchnice throughout the recording process, the result is the most cohesive Maxilla Blue record thus far.
This brings us to the climactic anthem "Fivehundredfifteen Percent." A dramatic intro sets up this droning banger that's certain to energize the hometown fan base and light up crowds on the road as well. The song is an expression of local pride, but woven into that display of pride is an admonishment directed at fans and fellow artists that there's still a lot of heavy lifting to be done before Des Moines and the rest of Iowa are recognized as artistically on par with numerous other scenes throughout the region, let alone the rest of the country.
The album closes with the laid back, soulful "Wretches Brew," which imparts a feeling like that of a show as it starts to wind down, as the crowd closes tabs and begins to disperse. Though the vibe is chill, the lyrics touch on apocalyptic social ills and speak of Asphate's vision of "a pale equestrian," creating an interesting juxtaposition between music and words, and characteristically inviting examination and interpretation on the part of the listener. And so, the album closes with a perfect encapsulation of Maxilla Blue's music - there's often an underlying sense of skepticism, but it's always balanced by the possibility of discovery and new understandings.
- Scott Dominguez
"Volume 3" is available on iTunes, Amazon, Galapagos4, and UGHH. If you're old school like me and prefer a physical copy, you can stop by ZZZ Records in Des Moines, which any self-respecting Des Moines music fan should already be doing on a regular basis.
In addition to this year's 80/35 Festival, you can catch Maxilla Blue live at DG's Taphouse in Ames, Saturday, July 14th.