An ear for the unusual unites MC Tree and experimental-metal act Wreck & Reference | Bleader

An ear for the unusual unites MC Tree and experimental-metal act Wreck & Reference


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Tremaine Johnson, the rapper and producer better known as Tree, hooked me long before I wrote about him for a Reader B Side cover feature. I've kept his mixtape Sunday School on repeat for months, thoroughly under the spell of its "soul trap" sound. Johnson has a knack for combining off-kilter samples and sparse drum patterns in a way that's dissonant and strange but still melodic and soulful.

Johnson's beat-making method is as simple as the percussive elements in his music. He samples songs from YouTube, then edits each one and tweaks its modulation till he finds the effect he wants; finally he adds the drumbeat. And he does it all in GarageBand. "I just do what I do," he says. "Chop it up and put it in the columns."

Sunday School flies in the face of listener expectations about contemporary sample-based hip-hop: discordant pileups sometimes threaten to disrupt any semblance of melody, but the finished product is improbably harmonious and pleasing. Sunday School rejects certain notions about how to make a good album while appealing to the idea of what makes an album good within its genre—an approach reminiscent of another great and criminally overlooked record released earlier this year, No Youth by California experimental-metal act Wreck & Reference.

Filled with rolling waves of feedback, scattered blastbeats, and heavy instrumental buildups, No Youth sounds like a brutal and brilliant metal album—but only sort of. There's something slightly off about the music, which careens between claustrophobic gusts of noise and cavernous, serene melodic whispers—for one thing, the band doesn't use stringed instruments.

Given that Wreck & Reference work in a genre where riff worship is the norm, it's somewhat heretical for them to forgo guitars entirely. Drummer-singer Ignat Frege and programmer-singer Felix Skinner were living in different parts of California when started Wreck & Reference, so they used the same method that Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello did to create the first Postal Service album, lobbing ideas back and forth via e-mail. Frege and Skinner eventually ended up sharing a house in Davis, where they decided to ditch that material and focus on creating new songs.

Frege and Skinner use a computer to compose their songs, and as in Johnson's case, their software of choice—Ableton Live—isn't generally associated with their style of music. "We make a point to kind of use unconventional sounds and samples and things like that, and stay away from what would be perhaps the easier route," Skinner says. The pair also give their music a little texture by running the mix through guitar amps. "We chose to use the guitar amps to make it a little more visceral in that metal way," Frege says.

The end result certainly is visceral; the pair may use unconventional samples, but they transform those sounds till they're more like whale mating calls, frothing guitar stabs, or demonic organ dirges. At times the the pileups on No Youth are reminiscent of those on Sunday School—and though they work to a cataclysmic and distressing effect, like the samples on Sunday School they're also strangely beautiful.

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