Album Review/Matt Oliver




The Four Owls   ‘Nocturnal Instinct’
(High Focus)   LP/17th April 2020


Even in today’s ease of hip-hop connectivity, a crew from little old England who can call on guests of the calibre of DJ Premier, Masta Killa, Kool G Rap, Roc Marciano and RA the Rugged Man, must be pointing their mic the right way. The Four Owls have taken their time to become arguably the premier UK crew of the utmost reliability; on their current share of the spoils, its testament to their own grind that on fourth album Nocturnal Instinct, you’re here for them and not the draw of their impressive imports.

That said, those that know will probably find that intro a cliché. They’ll further wince at those assuming that these are fourteen gobby posse cuts as well: this is shift work involving hard labour 16s and 32s, up to the mic with a hobnailed step, then retreating with the smoothness and intuition of a relay team where routine, practice hours and making every syllable count are absolute. This is not particularly a discourse in show and prove either – though you’re brave/idiotic should you step to them; it’s a masterclass of self expression – wellbeing, learning from personal pasts, to trust/tame your impulses (and yes, owl-like wisdom) – through four contrasting conduits whose familiarity through a mountain of past solo material and the group’s previous albums (Natural Order and Nature’s Greatest Mystery now stretching the saga nearly a decade) means the Owls ever faltering in full flight is unimaginable.

The dynamic vies for your affection like box fresh collectables, yet where you have to the whole collection rather than one lone shelf dweller. Leaf Dog, slightly highly strung and seemingly always on the brink of talking his way into/out of trouble, actually holds a steady head keeping wits about him. Verb T, his telling, elder statesman cadence always one step in advance, has seen it all before and is currently winning at wearing the T-shirt, remaining utterly withering on ‘Dark Days’. Fliptrix, the hydro-powered livewire, excels in street spirituality – case in point, ‘Be Free’, where he shows vulnerability dressed as a normal 9-to-5er. And BVA is just pure no nonsense, acting as the crew’s geezer-ish, collar up, first line of watertight defence. Grab the mic, respect it, rock it, done.

Made for sweaty, beer from a bucket boltholes not knowing the existence of social distancing, Leaf Dog’s beats rock, jump on shoulders, shove their way to the front row and harness one communal head nod as MPC pads bear heavy fingerprints and undercuts of bass test the law of 90s Queensbridge. Then subtly pulling back into reflective, soul-lined ruminations to chew on, full of weathered pianos and reticent woodwinds, strings and rhythms, Nocturnal Instinct is always of a stocky constant. As unofficial Fifth Owl, DJ Premier’s solitary ‘100%’ is by the book Gang Starr-ism – certainly not hired as a showstopper, and whose introducing of the group akin to a big top/prize fight ringmaster will probably be more revered than the actual beat he lays down. In any case, Leaf Dog’s ‘All My Life part 2’ sounds more Premo than Premo himself.

As for the other much-vaunted guests (shout also to Smellington Piff for dovetailing nicely on the opening biff ‘Sound the Alarm’), Masta Killa is pretty much overshadowed on ‘Deadly Movements’. Kool G Rap remains a scoop, and is someone through passing rhyme references on ‘Pioneer’ who has the Owls utmost respect. Roc Marciano is ideally cast as the safe breaker on ‘Dark Days’, ushering in the Owls as unlikely thieves in the night (a tribute to Leaf Dog switching it up on the boards); and RA the Rugged Man shows the sort of elastic circus of rhymes that dominated his own recent All My Heroes Are Dead LP on the uptempo free-for-all ‘Air Strike’. Nonetheless, none of the trump cards bring the house down in a way that shoves the Owls to the side; no being owned on your own shit going on here. It’s not showboating, but there’s a degree of the foursome showing off by telling their guests to wait their turn and play the game their way without feeling they have to go pound for pound with them: there’s the crew’s respect for you.

By rule of thumb, The Four Owls should be back by about 2025, venerable UK hall of famers and distinguished models of quality control and trusting their instincts, day and night.





Hip-Hop Revue
Matt Oliver





Singles

Front page news in hip-hop this month has been the unexpected return of Gang Starr – whether it needed a guest spot from J Cole or not, ‘Family and Loyalty’ is nicely nostalgic and respectful, pure Guru wisdom about what matters most, and DJ Premier bringing boom bap sparkle, making you sigh with both contentment and for what once was.

 Rodney P roughing up the right path reveals ‘The Next Chapter’, at his influential best and calling the tune to Urban Monk extending carnival season. The surprise return of Tommy Evans wants you to feel his ‘Flow (H20)’, hosting a drowsy, frilly-collared sway with a killer hook and his clear-minded navigation of gentle waves.





Some modest Trevvy Trev production, boom bap jabbing at you rather than going for the all-out roundhouse, allows San Man & MC Small World to stroll freely and get the coolness of their deadliness to set up an old skool prowl of authority on the five track ‘EP’. The music may be of a smooth funk vintage, but Dark Lo pulls the pin to set the record straight on ‘American Made’ and exerts sheer street control on ‘Ripped Apart’ with Benny the Butcher. Catch him if you can – Nodoz is ‘All Ready Up’, “staying woke ‘til the white sheet cover my eyes”, the early bird fiercely catching Will C’s smooth funk with a magical mystery tale to tell.






Albums

‘Retropolitan’ rolls with a capital R as “a love letter and a wakeup call to the city” from Skyzoo and Pete Rock, a well suited duo speculators must secretly have been hoping would get together, and whose Big Apple toughness comes with polished corners, epitomising the concrete jungle encasing the big city of dreams. Bustling and ‘bout it but barely breaking sweat, it’s an exemplary expo of sights and sounds, achieving easy listening when the pair’s objective is anything but.

Now sporting a short back and sides and Colgate smile and aligning himself with Q-Tip as executive producer, the energy of Danny Brown stays undiminished on ‘uknowhatimsayin¿ ’, but this time around you can tell he’s given more thought as to which wet square pegs should go in which live round holes. Paul White, Flying Lotus, JPEGMAFIA and Run the Jewels are all part of a medium reset, updating the livewire’s instincts that still come through loud, clear and uncouth (“I ignore a whore, like an email from LinkedIn”).





“I may never rock the Garden, but I did plant the seed, and it’s far from Autumn” – Von Pea, with his Pusha T-ish rasp, declares ‘City for Sale’ but also mi casa su casa, endlessly funky with production baked in sunshine and snappy cypherisms penning local postcards about how hood the hood really is right now.





The ever likely lads Dr Syntax and Pete Cannon are back to break their unique brand of bread until they’ve defined ‘Wallop’, chatting solemnly over tea and biscuits before giving it some jump-up, bass-mainlining welly. Whatever the mood of your favourite plain English rapper and wildcard producer combo, they leave you feeling invigorated from all the angles they cover.





Bending your ear with his usual best of British, Kid Acne’s South Yorkshire styling receives a boost from Illinois’ Spectacular Diagnostics, pulling ‘Have a Word’ from fuggy pillars to raw and whip-smart posts. Another time capsule of references tripping off the tongue, that continued sense of Acne picking up the mic and diving straight into the close-to-home anarchy with no warm up, sustains his latest keeper of the faith as flavoursome and full of unfettered character, shared with members of New Kingdom, Juga-Naut and Juice Aleem.

Ocean Wisdom’s extensive lung squeezer ‘Big Talk’ has got the mouth to go with the trousers, unstoppably menacing when riding jittery danger zone trappers rarely feeling the need to pull the handbrake. Assists from Dizzee Rascal, P Money, Ghetts, Akala, Freddie Gibbs and Fatboy Slim underline the star quality finding six million more ways to end careers at the same rate of words per minute.

When the long stretch of ‘Eagle Court’ is in session, CMPND trio Wundrop, Kemastry and Vitamin G invest in deep bass shudders of trap/drill genealogy that you can somehow find solitude in, and disgust-registering rhymes consistently keeping heads down while speaking up for bad boys moving in silence. Probably ineffective in daylight hours, a different beast when the graveyard shift ticks by, banging like a gavel in the hand of the Grim Reaper.

Livewire rhymes with clean means of execution from VersesBang advocate ‘Cardigans & Calories’, taking over tough/rubbery bass steppers and sending the fortunes of foes into hiding. Most unexpected is the appearance of D12’s Bizarre on the concluding ‘W.E.I.R.D.O.’, showing that rap/grime is not a funny old game. Junior Disprol’s ‘Def Valley’ is like a hip-hop game of Tough Mudder, gruffly ravaging a tricky selection of beats (yacht rockers to blips-n-bleeps to pots-n-pans, drum machine brawlers) with the unfazed, warpaint-daubed mindset of no-one else is gonna manage it, so it may as well be the Dead Residents emcee.





The LA addicts fiending for static that are Clipping are back to confirm ‘There Existed an Addiction to Blood’, an oxymoron where no-one can hear you scream in space until its engine room sucks you in and spits you out. The trio continue to give braincells a thrashing but still love a good hook, with emcee Daveed Diggs’ style in charge of the captain’s log recited by a sentient streetwise super-computer, taking Benny the Butcher, El Camino and La Chat along for the ride.





The heavy burdens of Big Turks gang Rome Streetz, Jamal Gasol and Lord Juco handle dangerous day-to-days to Ro Data’s expressive Turkish folk skills. Inducing a hush as they step in the place and where spotting weakness can be cataclysmic, this it tough Mafioso styling holding a certain cinematic exotica until the heavies on the mic – few grand gestures = time is money – begin their rearranging. Clinical, allowing for one traditional Turkish jig to conclude.

An invite to ‘The Gold Room’ from SadhuGold prepares ears for heavy instrumentalism straining towards the grey area of your DAB, too focussed on trip hop toil and a certain prog rock/gangsta determination so as to avoid playing the strung out chestnut. Slithering and curling itself around late night like a serpent ready for its chokehold moment, plucky emcees will flinch at the Philly producer’s muddy Midas touch.

‘Complicate Your Life With Violence’ suggest L’Orange and Jeremiah Jae, the folklore of old war stories and wild westerns mined by the former, schooled by a 5 o’clock shadow of a faintly numb flow keeping an ear to the street belonging to the latter. An expert in throwing you for a loop in its disregard for boom bap boundaries, seems to house a cast of hundreds when in reality it’s a good old fashioned (uniquely telepathic) MC-producer two-for. Proof that violence can solve matters.

Zilla Rocca and Curly Castro could tell you what Grift Company are all about, but then they’d probably have to kill you: ‘Too Many Secrets’ takes true school to the bank with a stick-up kid swagger. Giving it all they’ve got by using the 32 minute duration as a ticking time bomb to their savagery roaming the streets, it’s a slick and dangerous operation, pushing underground cinema full of proper hip-hop spirit.





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