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.





LP REVIEW
WORDS: MATT OLIVER


Ramson Badbonez & DJ Fingerfood  ‘Hypnodic’
High Focus Records, 16th June 2017

High Focus’ one-time garbage pail kid found hanging on Task Force’s ‘Music from the Corner’ – “without a shadow of a doubt, the most popular grouch, bad attitude and foul moods” – is swinging a fob watch and infusing the room with brattish British aromas. Ramson Badbonez, a name that has never endorsed figures and findings of less than 100% (just make sure you put the M in the right place), has long ridden with a posse of blue touch paper lighters: a snapshot of RB on DJ Jazz T’s ‘Pick & Mix Experience’ from last year is ideal research into the practices of Hypnodic. With boom bap from DJ Fingerfood the be all and end all, putting heads on chopping blocks en route to bagging a thirteen-course bellyful, Hypnodic is not a mind trick that’ll leave you feeling sleepy.

Breaking the mad scientist mould, a white-collar criminal in a white coat monogrammed with a Jolly Roger, there’s a collective bounce that’ll pull you out the front row before dispatching you back into the masses by dismissive means. Showing his clipboard doodles and lyrical long division on ‘Solitude’, a rare instance of Fingerfood quelling the action with a methodical, even theatrical back-n-forth, Badbonez mixes third eye alchemy, throwing voodoo pins like he’s at the oche, with squalid life from the itchy side. ‘Stir Fried’, living in squatter’s paradise/student digs hell, is delivered with very British pride/disdain, an overlap of fantasy-reality rearranged by the scruff of the neck.

It’s symptomatic of RB’s style that might not directly call out opposition, but will leave them needing some pretty special comebacks to stay in his orbit. Speaking up for producer-emcee dynamic as well, if Badbonez doesn’t topple you, Fingerfood will clean you up and out before the standing count. With rhymes delivered with an emphatic, nib-breaking full stop at the end of every bar (‘Verses Eye Spit’), a 35 minutes long running time means angles are worked sharp and precise – and loud, “condition(ing) my tongue like the one-inch punch”.

Around some Fingerfood tapas served as cohesive intervals rather than self-fulfilling detritus, Badbonez busts mics, with MAB vouching for ownership of “more bars than Ibiza, Ayia Napa or Falaraki”…and then gets the hell out of there (‘Anti Convo’) as if there’s a bounty counting down on his head. The express show-n-prove ‘Komodo Saliva’ in particular, loads up and spews out seat of the pants thrills. The short fuse gives him something of an enigmatic edge some of his label mates don’t carry, even if it’s hardly a persona that exudes secrecy.

When the smoke clears, you’re okay with the fact that Badbonez and Fingerfood could have gone further as bull in a china shop for another half dozen or so tracks. The compact effectiveness of jugular-lusting impact cannot be overstated, and in the High Focus pecking order, Hypnodic is the caffeine boost boasting the exact levels of raw and uncut hip-hop you require. Very necessary therapy.








ALBUM REVIEW
Words: Matt Oliver


Strange U - Monolith Cocktail

Strange  U   ‘#LP4080’
Released  by  High  Focus,  10th  February  2017

“I worship the Sega God with the blue fur; my mother’s Lara Lor-Van, my father’s Lex Luther”.

Though the chrome may not be shiny and the cylinders can’t help but misfire, High Focus’ ownership of 2016 (summarised here) is safe in the hands of Strange U’s voodoo children for the New Year. Venerable UK hip-hop rogues Kashmere (The Iguana Man, Lord Rao), and Dr Zygote (The Maghreban), theorise conspiracies through comic book schlock writing its own legend. A classic hip-hop one-two manning long established loose cannons, #LP4080 has a deftness that allows it to be daft, transplanting MF Doom and Kool Keith through zodiac mind warps and Vulcan death grips.

Kashmere’s telling of stranger than fiction tales, sex drugs and rock & roll laced with wild one-liners that’ll either gob smack you or smack you in the gob, joyrides Zygote’s primitive vision of the future made to the specification of a mint condition Dalek (intermission Taurus makes a public service announcement of a space colony being unveiled by the year 2000). Black hole-sized beats, decommissioned Casios, arcade consoles that have long flashed ‘game over’, and electro downloaded over dial-up internet, create the perfect simulation of space’s loaded vastness, always one false move away from catastrophic consequences. If the ship’s going down, Strange U are gonna fly it their way, accentuating High Focus’ cast of many characters that would fill a sticker book.

How you feel the Gs is down to tracks like Bullet Proof Mustache: trying to achieve a body count of the 80s silver screen megastars it references, acting the fool and plotting nonsensical courses is Strange U’s smartest move, particularly with Lee Scott boarding the same vessel like Dave Lister. The unexpected self-deprecation Waste of Space shows that guardians of the galaxy have to start somewhere, without exactly speaking up for the little guy, and Mumm Ra, stepping up the supreme Veronica RIP from Kashmere’s In the Hour of Chaos, plays Russian Roulette with a female species, Zygote taking the narrative on the run with doomed boom-bap.

The emcee’s power up has also sharpened his social awareness. Despite long peddling the world’s end, reality means tragedy must accompany comedy, showing that #4080 is still the devil’s number. On Mr Kill, the star strider inaugurates himself as Alan B’stard (“this is not Jeremy Corbyn in a tie-dye vest…the type of sub-human you would love to own the country”), and with the graphic Armageddon of Eden’s Husk – the guesting Jehst rhyming like a correspondent live at the scene – the outlandish predicament sounds like what boffins have been predicting for years, plastered across the front page of your favourite red top.

For all the anecdotal complexity, the sandpapered English is virtually always plain, call and response choruses leaping into the front row in carrying on the good work of Power Cosmic’s Bang! Splat!. The appeal of Strange U’s odyssey is simple respect of the basics in beats and rhymes, no matter how far bent to the left. Syllables set to stun in the middle of an Asteroids field, it’s a first class bizarre ride to and from the far side.







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