Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.
One of the cool things about being a musician is being able to collaborate with a close friend; it’s a bonus when you and your friend both happen to be visionaries.
The union of Ishmael Butler and Erik Blood – the duo collectively known as Knife Knights – began at a Spiritualized show in 2003, around the time Butler released Bright Black under the moniker of Cherrywine. Cherrywine as a project remains a fascinating curiosity even to this day. Though Butler’s writing is always compelling and evocative (leaning heavy on the streetwise lyrics that would often go overlooked in favor of the metaphysical concepts later in his career), the album sounds weirdly contemporary for its era compared to the dusty timelessness of Digable Planets and the too-far-ahead-of-their-time approach of Shabazz Palaces.
Butler and Blood meeting while watching Jason Pierce and company metaphorically float in space is a significant milestone given the musical omnivorousness of the two men. (Blood’s history as a superb rock producer is exhaustively documented, and during an interview for another website, Butler and I spent a decent portion of time raving about San Francisco shoegaze band Weekend.) Forged in a mutual understanding of both music and each other’s capabilities within the form and developed over years of collaboration (Knife Knights first appeared as the credited producers of Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up, and as I noted in our Double Take on the Quazarz albums, Blood is the group’s most official unofficial member), it was only a matter of time before a Knife Knights album pushed itself into existence.
As they reveal themselves in the final moments of the video for “Give You Game,” Blood and Butler are costumed as beings from a dimension far away from the one they exist in as human beings – the latter as a frontiersman in a matching rain jacket/hat combo and tribal shawl, the former as a Wild West mercenary from another planet. A striking visual aesthetic – not to mention the collective ideas of identity sprinkled throughout Shabazz Palaces releases – contributes to the duo often described as hermetic and mysterious, but 1 Time Mirage (out tomorrow via Sub Pop) is more often than not incredibly playful; the product of two longtime friends inviting a bunch of friends to the studio and fucking around with form.
Of course, the duo’s production work with Shabazz Palaces is decidedly experimental, sometimes manifesting itself in breezy and lighthearted ways, but are also driven by a very high-concept vision. 1 Time Mirage, for all its theoretical brilliance, feels guided by the most exhilarating question an artist could ask themselves standing in front of a blank slate: “What if?”
“What if we did Soundcloud rap?” On “Drag Race Legend,” Butler adopts a laconic, casual flow seemingly straight out of an Atlanta or Miami bedroom, rapping in a near slur about being the coolest teenager in the city. “Smoking dope and cutting school,” “Doing donuts on the ave,” stepfather somewhere in the background, being the teachers’ plug. The rhythm is so loose there is barely one to speak of; the bass pulsates like a heart murmur; in a different context, the encroaching psychedelic freakout of the guitars could be mistaken for a cutting room floor selection from Deerhunter’s sessions for Cryptograms; Butler’s vocals are delivered with an infectious charisma. Butler has a reputation as a musician who doesn't labor over his music too much, and the improvisational feel of some of his best music is displayed to a high degree on 1 Time Mirage.
“What if we made this like a party for some of the dope musicians we know?” Eight of the eleven tracks on 1 Time Mirage feature guest artists, most of whom travel in the stratosphere of Black Constellation. OCNotes is featured throughout the album, including opener “Bionic Chords,” where he and Butler trade verses back and forth in a double-time flow over the minimal starship bounce while Darius Willrich leads them in, soulful and wordless. “Can’t Draw the Line” is neon house/disco/R&B stunner, a minimal arrangement opening up for a florid jam. “Light Up Ahead (Time Mirage)” is a sunrise jam featuring a chorus of voices (including Willrich, OCNotes, Porter Ray, and Gerald Turner) employed in a stirring arrangement with the added percussive depth of Tendai Maraire.
“Give You Game” is bolstered by the combined presence of Stas THEE Boss (who springs through her verse with a melodic flow and eight-syllable rhyme patterns) and Marquetta Miller (who arguably serves as the song’s emotional center). Rattling and bricky-heavy percussion serve as the groundwork for the 44-second “Light Work,” a showcase for El Mizell (better known as Larry Mizell Jr.) to deliver some impressionistic, fly, self-referential bars. (“Niggas ‘round here thought that I retired” speaks to a lot of talk I’ve heard around town: “What’s Larry been up to in L.A.?” “Is he back? Is he just visiting? When’s he coming back?”)
“What if we used tribal rhythms and glowing synths as a soundtrack for kicking game to a good-looking stranger?” Over the aforementioned glowing synths and tribal rhythms – the latter provided by Maraire; selections featuring his work are credited to Shabazz Palaces, as the nucleus of the group is a Venn diagram with Knife Knights and Shabazz as the circles. Butler imbues “Low Key” with a playful, flirtatious spirit (as he’s often wont to do in Shabazz Palaces), giving the track -- more nakedly afrofuturist than anything Shabazz has recorded to date -- a very distinct “Friday night at the club” air.
In the group he is best known for, Butler’s lyrics exist as a massive contextual component of its songs, and while 1 Time Mirage is mostly rhythm and melody-driven, “Mr. President” reveals the nihilism of being too craven for power through its words and an unsettling, dissonant groove in its music. “My Dreams Never Sleep” serves as a clear highlight of the full-length, skipping through the shadows before revealing a colorful world of neon, resplendent in texture and tone.
“Hermetic,” as popular a term as it is to describe the tandem of Knife Knights, is far from the proper word choice when describing their process of creating music. With all the hands on deck, 1 Time Mirage clearly would not have been possible if its creators didn’t truly believe in the idea of community, of having a family of artists willing to offer their individual ideas and talents to such an expansive, evocative, excellent piece of work, filtered through the vision of good friends who happen to be two of Seattle’s most legendary contemporary artists. They’ve arguably been on the all-time list for a while, but it’s only a matter of time before the gatekeepers who decide such things to make space for them in the Hall of Fame.
Northwest Music Scene Accepting Submissions For Their 100 Bands in 100 Days Event
Notable local music website Northwest Music Scene is gearing up for their annual 100 Bands in 100 Days event, the premise of which sounds pretty self-explanatory to me. The series starts on September 23rd and runs until the end of the year, and the site will be taking submissions through the end of October. Any musical act based in the Northwest is eligible for entry. For more information (including how to submit your act), click here.
On Double Take, KEXP's dynamic duo of Martin Douglas and Dusty Henry explore the great double-albums in history by each focusing on one part's musical, lyrical, and historic themes. First up are the parallel albums released by Shabazz Palaces on the same day in 2017: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Sta…
Ahead of this Sub Pop's Turntable Session with Black Constellation on Aug. 2, KEXP offers a brief overview of the interstellar collective.
In this edition of Rewind, Martin Douglas explores Shabazz Palaces' odyssey-like sophomore album, which surveys its environment with more street savvy than the group is often given credit for.