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/EPs

Rapture & Verse is King, a wise man may have said – onward! Undimmed by the fact that ‘A Lot of People Tell Me I Have a Fake Guitar’, Morriarchi goes inside his astral plane for a gentle handful of spellcaster instrumentals drifting in its own funkular helix (even if one happens to be called ‘Veggie Farts’). ‘The Wave’s Coming’ warns Bristol’s Wish Master, who might offer you salvation but isn’t afraid to let go either, parallel parked with Buggsy and Tac to the Simiah-produced track that tightropes between dreamy and booby trapped.




Imaginary Other and Chuuwee’s rebirth of slick on ‘THE (Hawaiian Button Up)’ shows a smooth mack game when all around are losing it in the woollens aisle. The balance of confidence/arrogance from LA’s IQ brings melody with a hidden jagged edge following ‘Everywhere I Go’, and the same goes for Tha Truth’s ‘Cool With It’, cutting the tension with a barely concealed blade (and a great hook), despite declaring being “cool like the breeze on a warm summer’s eve” like it’s an Andrex vox pop.

 

Albums

‘Dusty’ will leave you feeling at ease with the mathematics of the inimitable Homeboy Sandman, that slightly kooky persona that’s actually just pure skills unfazed by tempo, and turning fleeting thoughts into elaborate dissections. Just when you’re thinking he’s coming in from a softer side, he goes absolutely nuts on pots-n-pans slam ‘Yes Iyah’, before heading to the just lovely ‘Picture on the Wall’ and the pretty sleazy, yet entirely forgivable, ‘Pussy’. Long may the cult of the Sandman continue.




Out the blue, Brother Ali’s ‘Secrets & Escapes’ produced by Evidence is a helluva early Christmas present, the near enough spontaneity of the recording sessions making the respective skills on display even more sickeningly good. You know how they do – wise, open-eyed rhymes, evocative slash ready-to-scrap beats – plus guest spots from Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli, and ghoulish artwork open to a thousand interpretations. How’s that? Give their gifts this season.




All that glitters is ‘Green & Gold’ when Mr Key and Greenwood Sharps combine for something that, in other hands, would be dour or boorish (the delivery mixing label mates Verb T and Ed Scissor) in letting fading memories slip away. The pair prudently raise themselves and those in earshot from a slump, chronicling slow but sure shoots of recovery and understanding, knowing they still have to put the work in to do so (being woke ain’t the one either). The mere seven tracks become an engrossing evening’s listening.

Red alert under a full moon: ‘The Creature from Beneath the Mainstream’ is Genesis Elijah’s perfect Halloween soundtrack, good and angst-ridden as he stomps the warpath straight to your front door, switching between fire-breather and whispering death on the creeping, skittering back story. Rewind ‘Haunted Trap House’ three times and expect to catch your last breath. A strong starting XI makes Reklews’ second squad of ‘Rap Type Beats’, bassy head shots splashed with a fear traceable to emcees flinching at the quality of gauntlet thrown down in front of them. Perfect for bleak midwinter forecasts.

Whenever Big Toast starts limbering up you know it’s not gonna be a fair fight, and with Strange Neighbour matching him punch for punch, the Tuff Boyz twosome splash off the top rope on ‘Bat Night’. Wading in while Oliver Sudden takes scalps on the boards with funk thicker than the stodgiest of winter stews, this is all girth, no gimmicks. Snowflakes, this really isn’t for you, though the eight track running time is the only mercy shown.




His usual dice game generating wisdom from an inward path, now attending to extra grown man business, and trigger-nometry taking casualties, including an interesting rework of Siouxsie and The Banshees, Klashnekoff’s ‘Iona’ is a welcome return to the forefront. An album epitomising the need to sleep with one eye (and two ears) open, and a model example of navigating life’s shark-infested waters without scoffing at vulnerability.

Hell bent on stuffing you into a locker while balancing a ghetto blaster on its shoulder, Uncommon Nasa and Kount Fif’s ‘City as School’ is the New York underground incarnate; at pains to not fit into ‘traditional’ parameters but making so much sense in doing so, where the post-apocalyptic is unerringly, unnervingly near to modern day. Blockbuster burners laid end to end as outlaws of the corridors, “trust the process, avoid the nonsense” at all costs.

On the subject of local representation, 21 tracks and 50 emcees later and you should have a pretty good idea of the Motor City sound according to Apollo Brown. The sepia-toned soul of ‘Sincerely, Detroit’ is seamlessly able to shake itself down and roll with force to stay on course, and everyone involved – from staple spokesmen Elzhi, Illa J and Royce da 5’9”, to project investors Boog Brown, Nolan the Ninja and Bronze Nazareth – takes their time so the intimated free-for-all is avoided. Pull on your headphones, get snug and let the accomplished Michigan craft leave you misty-eared as Brown hits the peak of his powers.




Admittedly/inevitably there are a bounty of guests, skits, questions as to its timing and whether there’s really enough of its ever eloquent protagonist to go around, but Gang Starr’s ‘One of the Best Yet’ is a respectful honouring of the Guru legacy. Business as usual from DJ Premier’s infinite stash of kicks and snares, chops and swoops is the ultimate case of if it ain’t broke, and the 2019 reboot find its direction through introspection without overturning too many applecarts.

“A dive into the complex dynamics of the eternal paper chase, about capitalism, greed and excess” – so kind of unsurprising that the piece de resistance of Crimeapple’s ‘Viridi Panem’ cites ‘All About the Benjamins’ like a grim business studies 101. Another to approach the day of reckoning like it’s a Sunday morning stroll, zombie relentlessness enabled by Buck Dudley’s production, the apple of your ear only takes half hour to save the world.




Stalley’s ‘Reflection of Self: The Head Trip’ isn’t quite as meditative as it suggests, but as a mini-album lolls nicely thanks to Jansport J’s clement, lightly fuggy soul, and Stalley’s ease on the mic when sorting those needing putting in their place. “You can try and box me in, but I’m a find my way out” indicates his ease of finding solutions when others struggle with the instructions.

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