Crossover Without Concept
Anything But Words, released on August 26th, is the official LP debut of Banks & Steelz, the recently formed partnership between former Interpol frontman Paul Banks and RZA, of Wu-Tang Clan fame. While a seemingly odd pair, the two artists have passionately labored over this project for the past several years, attempting to establish their position amongst the ever-growing list of rock-rap crossovers. While they do bring intriguingly different elements to the table, their effort is met with mixed results, as repetitive forms and shaky transitions mar the success of their compositions.
“F*** CNN, this is ghetto editorial/seems like milks and Oreos dipped inside the audio” RZA raps in the album opener “Giant,” which is an odd statement within the context of an album that seems heavily dominated by the fuzz-rock musings of his collaborator. Here, organs and overdriven drums dominate the sonic texture. The track pulses with energy in what seems like an ode to Outkast’s “B.O.B.,” as we begin with an onslaught of a verse from RZA (one of only two moments during the entire album in which a song doesn’t start with a chorus from Banks).
From the outset, Banks douses his voice and guitar tracks in distortion, bathing them in fuzz for the majority of the record. At times, this works to great effect – hear “Speedway Sonora” in which thick power chords dominate the chorus in an homage to Silversun Pickups or The Pixies. This chorus provides added interest in its modulation to a 6/4 time signature, drawing the listener in for one of the more musically inventive segments of the album. Truly, Banks’ vocal compositions may warrant the term “fantastic” a few times over the course of the record, especially during the choruses of “Conceal” and the titular track, “Anything But Words.”
With many artists recently enlisting the aid of musical lotharios such as Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and Robert Glasper, Anything But Words falters in its attempts to showcase the technical abilities of RZA and Banks. Such an antithesis of virtuosity is all the more grating during the frequent moments at which it is brought to the forefront. The uncomfortably rudimentary guitar solo that concludes “Conceal” merely detracts. The entire record concludes with a meandering, two-and-a-half minute drum and piano feature that, simply put, makes no sense. At times, the listener can hear the pair try to push their boundaries, but they too often rely on unstructured chromaticism. The result frequently becomes a bombardment of notes from outside the key signature, forced dissonance in songs like “Ana Electronic” and “Point of View.”
There is no foundational theme to this collection of songs, which causes Anything But Words to suffer. What Damon Albarn did with such tact via the vehicle of Gorillaz is aurally alluded to, but without the framework of a firm conceptual approach. Thus, we are given a slough of formulaic sketches, a ping-pong tournament between Banks’ choruses and RZA’s verses in a catalogue of binary form.
The topics covered range from semi-existentialism to failed relationships and, often, there isn’t enough substance delivered lyrically to support these disparate tracks. In the midst of the musically successful “Wild Season,” which features the strongest drum programming on the album and a guest appearance from a surprisingly apt Florence Welsh, RZA leaves the listener wanting, rhyming “then” with “then” before clumsily concluding his verse (“I may have gotten out of these bad situations/runnin’ around town with no destination”). The duo lump together two songs lamenting the consequences of love with mixed results. “Love and War,” a turbulent anthem that begins with a Tarantino-esque trumpet melody (a facet touted in the music video), features a handful of well-written phrases from RZA and longtime collaborator Ghostface Killah. However, the lyrics of the song that follows, “Can’t Hardly Feel,” are so decidedly poor that one wonders how this song even made it onto the album. “Have you ever had this feeling, once in your life/in which you like a girl so much you wish she was your wife,” RZA begins. It only goes downhill from there – the wettest blanket of a cuckold song ever written.
It is certainly refreshing to see high-profile artists like RZA and Banks attempt a unique concept. It is not refreshing, though, to see them bend to the whim of what feels like assumed mainstream desire and, for a partnership born out of polarity, there is an unfortunate lack of experimentation. For a glimpse into the moments where Banks & Steelz happen upon the realization of their partnership, turn to tracks like “Conceal” and “Sword in the Stone.” The avid fan and listener searching for hidden gems should seek Banks’ more successful melodies, the intriguing use of distortion and overdrive, and the sporadic turn-of-phrase from RZA. It will be interesting to discover whether Banks & Steelz pursue a follow-up to this debut and, if so, will they delve further into the possibilities of this crossover.