REVIEW: Swollen Members – Balance

Balance

Artist: Swollen Members

Album: Balance

Label: Jazz Fudge

Rating: 8 / 10

Reviewer: DJ MF

Coming out of Vancouver, British Columbia, and after a deluge of underground singles that managed to capture the imagination of the entire independent hip hop community, the Swollen Members have arrived with a full length, major lable release of sorts.

Don’t get it twisted, they’re still repping Battle Axe Records, but with the help of Caroline Records, they’ve now acquired the ability to actually DISTRIBUTE their music.

The Swollen Members are comprised of two members – Madchild and Prevail, who’ve managed to concoct an intoxicating blend of music that is at the same time beautiful and foreboding.

They’ve also got a boatload of hip hop heavyweights behind them, including the incredible production talents of the Alchemist (Mobb Deep, Dilated Peoples), Del, Kemo of the Rascalz, and the MC talents of Aceyalone, the Hobo Junction, Hieroglyphics, and the aforementioned Dilated Peoples. Incredible, especially considering they ARE from Canada after all, and have barely been heard in their own country.

“Balance” appears to be a collection of some older singles that have been released by the duo, plus a bunch of newer tracks. Things open up, not with a skit, like so many LP’s released today, but an actual musical piece. Kool DJ EQ is behind the boards for ‘Ground Breaking’, and he provides an absolutely haunting backdrop for the MC’s to rhyme over, consisting of some choir-like chanting, some minor-sounding keys, and some absolutely disgusting cuts and scratches that will leave you scratching your head in disbelief. Madchld and Prevail then proceed to kill the mic with verses that are pretty complex, deep, and damned hard to decipher, although in the end this is basically a battle track. It all sounds amazing.

“Nice to make your acquaintance sorry I beat you to a pulp
A more relationship to dope shit but now it’ll be pretty obvious
My voice is the last thing you hear, before you slip into unconsciousness
I promise, this will be a trip you’ll never unclip
Unless you feel the hammer paste strip straight through your lip
I love to grip a strip off my sworn opposites
Swarmith the unit of hornets who love to sting shit
Bring me my mic case I wanna slice ’em to bits
Start at the body dicing ’em open and stroll his dip”

The Alchemist then climbs on board for the ride for the underground classic ‘Strength’, a track I’ve loved for well over a year now. It’s got a dark and menacing bassline, has another gorgeous piano loop, and uses a wailing string noise intermittently along with some more nice cuts. It’s an amazing piece of music. The music is so good in fact, that listening to it now, Mad and Prevail kind of let it down with verses that while good, just can’t keep up with the beat. And STILL I think it’s an amazing track.

‘Lady Venom’ is up next, and the mood changes considerably, sounding upbeat even, if you can believe it. Over what sounds like distorted horns timed to the bassline, and some drums that sound vaguely Carribbean, this beat has a different flavour than the ones before it. Things get REALLY interesting when the chorus kicks in, with a beautiful vocal sample of a middle-eastern sounding woman singing. It works so well, it’s hard to give it justice with words. The Members return to form here, working perfectly within the beat, with Madchild in particular attacking the track with ferocity, and dropping lines about a dangerous woman. I’m sure it’s all metaphorical, but I could care less.

“The ultimate experience, I’ve already felt it
Madchild tasting her tounge, his heart melts
With the second chance for this demon that she dealt with
Few and far between from Beauty and the Beast
To a perfect combination, once this passion is unleashed
Golden Angel, precious Princess and since
This is more than just lust, trust if not now, then soon
One love, we’ll have our chance to dance on the moon”

Another interesting beat (you’ll be hearing that a lot) makes up the track ‘Front Street’, and once again, Alchemist is behind the boards. This time, he abandons his usual key-heavy mold, and makes a beat that uses a cool little horn sample, some dreamy flute-like jabs, and a more upbeat drum and bass pattern. It sounds very dreamlike, but not in the sense that it’ll make you sleep. This is another of the straight up battle tracks, and so far it would appear that what others have said is somewhat true – the Swollen Members are like a Canadian version of the Dilated Peoples. (That’s not bad by the way.)

‘Bless + Destroy’ is next, and Zodak handles the production work. The beat is VERY cool, this time with some very light sounding piano keys looped over a darker piano rhythm. The drums and bass sound very grimy and scratchy on this as well, a lot like much of the east coast production of the early to mid nineties. Like any good hip hop song, this track also includes a nice scratched chorus as well. Madchild drops the first verse here, and to tell the truth, is starting to grate on me voicewise. It’s not bad mind you, it just sounds like he could use a little stool loosener, if you get my drift. This track could use a touch more length.

Evidence of Dilated is behind the boards for the next track, ‘Counter Parts’, and he comes up with a beat that would have sounded at home on the Dilated debut, “The Platform”. It’s very simple, and laden with sound effects, a minor-key piano loop, and random guitar licks. Iriscience of Dilated begins things, and drops a few dope bars that don’t mean much, but just sound great because of his amazing flow and voice. Everyone else actually is a little outclassed here by Iriscience, even Evidence, so I don’t know what to make of this track as a SWOLLEN MEMBERS outing, but as a standalone track, it’s outstanding.

“One two yo yo yo
Yo hit the switch in December
I’ll be on till November
Bombin, disturbin the calm at civic centers
Make a smoothie outta rapper and his ice in my blender
Beyond the Fender Bender, Dilated-Swollen Members
Independent money makin, no time for waitin
Rakka stimulatin, designed for penetratin
Nuttin to prove, air sea and land mover
Crescent Heights, Cali up north to Vancouver”

Alchemist returns with ‘Circuit Breaker’, and once again crafts a beautiful instrumental, this time utilizing an amazing violin loop, and some spaced out keys that just sound like they’re raining on the beat, which is pretty basic if you strip it down, at least drums and bass wise. Some great multi’s from Madchild on this track as well as he shines for his extended verse, and Prevail is relegated to chorus duty.

“Rock star reflections scalping a diamond destiny
Dynasty of the slanted crushed black velvet and safire
Psycho circuits of carnage that’s unbelievably evil Blood trickling temper of pure golden retriever
I’m inspired by the sun, envision orange and purple
Mental games of enslavement strengthen the sacred circle
And lengthen mystic adventure, I ride path of destruction
Mysterious elves now cringed of my introduction”

Zodak returns with ‘Out Of Range’ and brings along a very dirty sounding beat, that’s almost old school sounding. At least the drums are. He also utilizes a great acoustic guitar sample in addition to a haunting violin loop. Nice and gritty, and fits in perfectly with the vocals here, as Mad and Prevail drop some more threats to wannabe MC’s. After the vocals, make sure to listen in for the amazing scratches tinged with an electronic effect. Great stuff.

“I choke him with strings of show and the carnival is open
We just finished stringing the cardinal from the ropes
And the poles and the hooks of the tent
To sound crash and packed intense dents from materials dense
My serial complex does adjust in itself
It morphs and it melts and it sways and it tilts
And it’s built of the techy type prototype
With a savaged defaulty radar gun and headlight
When midnight strikes all these mad men might strike
Hammerside swipes and box you in with pipes”

Ev drops by again, this time bringing along Whitey Ford (aka Everlast), and the Divine Styler for ‘Bottle Rocket’, and again he drops a beat that sounds tailor-made for Dilated. Another simple beat, this time garnished with a sprinkling of piano keys. It’s a little too simple really, and bored me rather quickly. Ev drops some nice rhymes to start things off, but I just can’t get with his imitation of Defari’s flow (which is iffy to begin with). Madchild then proceeds to show more flow on the beat than he has all album thus far, with what is probably his best verse on the LP thus far. Everlast is up next, again sounding different in terms of vocal tone. He drops some very simplistic lines though, and I’m thinking he should stick to his folk career. Divine makes things good again, just floating on the track with an amazing flow, and some killer lyrics, again in the braggadacio style.

“I’ll take you from He-Man to She-Ra
Battle Cat to Kringa
Medieval messanger, west coast avenger
Take you to the street, battle me that’s a f**kin sin
Go one round wit Madchild, you’ll be suckin wind
Snappin handcuffs just from deconcentration
Then I broke out the bus, the mental hospital patients
On the weekend pass, but I still come sick
Psychopathic, you’re dealin wit a deranged lunatic”

The next track, ‘Assault + Battery’ sounds REALLY weird in terms of beat. This is some abstract beat right here, as Zodak blends together a buzzy, frantic sounding bassline, with what sound like a middle-eastern stringed instrument. It’s all very loud, and threatens to drown out everything else. A nice touch is the little horn loop thrown in at the end of the verses though. Unexpected, and caught me off guard. Surprisingly, Mad and Prevail are able to rock this beat quite well, and the beat kinda compliments their stream of thought style lyrics, so in the end, it works out for the best, although repeated listens to this beat can give you a headache.

Another track I’ve had floating around my hard drive for a while now, ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’ is up next, but it’s unlike the version I have, and the beat on this is changed up quite a bit. Produced by Kemo of the Rascalz,and featuring the Hobo Junction (Saafir, Thirdrail Vic, and Big Nous), this is like a dream combo for me due to my love of the Hobo’s. The beat has been brightened up quite a bit from the version I have, with some electric guitar tinged bass drops, and what sounds like live instrumentation for the drums. It’s very simple, but I prefer the version I have, which is very muddy sounding. As expected, I love Saafir’s verse the best, although it loses a bit here, as it doesn’t mesh as well with the new beat, as it did with the original.

Joey Chavez supplies the beat for the next track, ‘S + M On The Rocks’. It’s a really simple beat, made a little more complex by the addition of single piano keys struck on the bass drops to make up a catchy upbeat melody that sounds almost jazz like, and the use of some cartoon-like noises. Nice. The lyrics also keep up, and this is basically some bragging ish again.

Kemo is again behind the boards for ‘Committed’, and I feel important again, because this is another track I’ve had for a long time. Son Doobie of Funkdoobiest guests here, and his sort of wacky flow is a welcome change of pace. The beat is VERY dark again, tempered again by the use of what sounds like a harp loop over the chorus. Peaceful and menacing at the same time if that can somehow be achieved. Lyrics basically revolve around how psycho all three are. Nothing special, although the flows of everyone involved rock the spot. As always, I’m a sucker for style, and this one oozes it.

Del of Hiero makes his appearance on the LP next, producing and lending guest vocals for the track, ‘Left Field’. As if that’s not enough firepower, the talents of Mixmaster Mike are used for the scratches too. Like Black Rob was rumoured to have once said – woah. The beat is interesting, if a little boring. It consists of an upbeat, almost pop sounding flute sample over some dirty drums, and a bassline that sounds like it was played on one of those stand up basses that they use in orchestras. Dope, but it’s not changed up AT ALL throughout the duration of the track, except for near the end, where Mike manipulates and chirps everything all over the place. Del starts things off lyricwise, and surprisingly doesn’t sound blunted or disinterested. Mad then drops his verse which is accentuated with some nice electronic blips. Unicron (aka Del with his voice sped up) is next, and drops a pimp verse, which makes me laugh because it’s SO not Del. Prevail ends things another solid couple of bars, and what was boring has been propped up by some compelling vocals. You gotta love the cuts by Mixmaster Mike at the end too, as he shows off some trememdous skills, and throws out a multitude of chirps, transforms, and crabs to make your ears bleed.

We return to the more sombre side of things with the track ‘Brace Yourself’, featuring Mixmaster Mike on the cuts once again, and production by Zodak. Stuttered violin chords are layed over a pretty generic “dark” beat, and some wicked cuts in the chorus by Mike. Unfortunately it’s not enough, and just sounds too plain to perk my interest. Probably the most bland and boring cut on the album. The lyrics can’t help either. Not bad considering the album is almost over, and this is the only track I skip.

The Alchemist returns to try and regain momentum on ‘Horrified Nights’, and doesn’t let me down. He uses a nice breakbeat here, with a pretty murky and distorted horn sample in coordination with some well place cuts. It sounds VERY amateur sounding, but I’m pretty sure that was the objective here. Midway through, things get even better, with the appearance of a bent menacing bassline, followed by some great cuts again. It’s all then combined for the final verses to make a huge mess of everything, but a GOOD mess. Abstract that sounds good… who would have thunk it? Mad and Pre don’t let the beat down either, riding it nicely, and dropping some gems along the way.

“That’s when i come back in attacking rapidly
Once I get inside your faculty, I’m causing a catastrophe
Survivors try to retaliate, only to learn They definitely crossed the line, past the point of no return
Look back you’ll crash and burn, but you’ll have to wait your turn”

‘Battle Axe Experiment’ is up next, and drapes you in it’s dreamlike soundscape, which is made up of a nice harp sample, and some nice atmospheric effects. It comes close to being too generic, but it’s saved by something that I can’t quite put my finger on – I think it might just be the quality of the harp sample they used, and the way it flows continuously, rather than having an easily identifiable stop/start section. Some nice cuts again, and the lyrics are dope too, as Mad and Prevail break down their styles, although it might be hard to figure out through their big words.

The final track of the LP, ‘Consumption’, is once again produced by Evidence, but unlike the other tracks he did here, it sounds different. It’s faster, and it uses a great electric guitar chord for a sample that makes up the melody. Basic drums and bass of course, but it’s overshadowed by the word done with the sample, which at different points of the song, is sped up, stuttered, or layered upon itself. Good stuff. The real nice surprise here though, is the addition of Aceyalone as a guest lyricist. Let’s put it this way – few in the hip hop game flow as well as him, and he doesn’t disappoint here, absolutely slaughtering Mad and Prevail in terms of quality, and riding the beat like he was a Kentucky Derby winner.

Wow, did that metaphor suck. Oh well.

Anyways, going back to the track, like I said, Acey kills it, with lines like the following –

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones
People who live in glass houses don’t throw stones
People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones
Because they risk having boulders crash down on their lovely homes
Thin wind rain sleet snow cones come showering through your roof
You need a fine toothed comb to find the truth
Well my house ain’t made of glass and my chariot ain’t no pumpkin
I’m not a backyard bumpkin I’m from the concrete slab
Where people taking anything and everything that they can grab
What’s so bad is a whole lotta grabbin
A lotta jar jabbin
Gremlins, goblins, rappers squabbling”

So you ask, was there anything wrong with this LP? Of course.It’s quite obvious there’s too little in terms of subject matter when it comes to lyrics. Everything is battle oriented, or is too complex and abstract to understand anyways. Not a killing blow, but enough to minus a whole point off what would otherwise be a near classic. Also, some may not go for the voice of Madchild. Don’t worry though, if you like hip hop, you’ll be able to get over it, because this right here, is a slab of some of the most pure hip hop released in the last couple of years. Scratching, innovative production, good lyricism…it’s all here. These guys didn’t win Canadian hip hop artists of the year for nothing you know.

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