The last time Sacramento hip-hop trio Death Grips were to play Austin was last year’s Fun Fun Fun Fest, but they pulled out. This wasn’t the first time they ditched FFF, and it also followed numerous cancellations from the band, which included Pitchfork Fest, Lollapalooza, a string of dates with Nine Inch Nails and an aborted East Coast tour. Death Grips allegedly broke up for a time, scrawling their goodbyes on a napkin, which FFF organizers Transmission wasted no time in mocking. Who’s gonna stop FFF from providing the chill vibes (aside from line snafus, exorbitant rates for Shiner, and Jello Biafra)? They never really stayed “broken up” in the conventional sense, releasing an instrumental album, “Fashion Week,” and more notably, “Jenny Death,” the companion album to last year’s “N*****s on the Moon” in their “The Powers That B” sequence. Plenty of bands never make good on indefinite hiatuses; Death Grips just move at the speed of the modern hype cycle. When Saturday night’s show at Mohawk was announced during the spring, tickets sold out fast on pure “will they or won’t they” speculation. Would they leave fans to destroy a hapless drum kit, like when they no-showed their Lollapalooza aftershow last year? Would they show up hours late and only play two songs? Was Transmission about to get burned, again?
Those weren’t the only questions to ponder. Is this really their last hurrah? Do they have any critiques of the usual rock show tropes they could have expressed on stage instead of canceling a bunch of dates? Are they a bunch of flakes in a moment of lapse? Trying to make sense of Death Grips’ intentions could be a PhD program in and of itself. Doesn’t playing live ruin their brand of not playing live? Is the most boring thing they could do is put a show on? If you saw them last night, you’d say no. The gamble paid off.
Sold-out Mohawk shows already provide little room to breathe, and with Death Grips’ relentless pace – they didn’t stop for over an hour until the show was over – it felt even smaller and more chaotic. It was an endurance test of keeping up with kids with X’s adorned on their hands, others’ sweat coating and coexisting with your own, spilled beers and occasional breeze the only relief. This cloistered state left no room for the overwrought contemplation you see in thinkpieces about Death Grips, pieces where writers pat themselves on the back for not listening to a band with even the slightest hint of moral fault. Drummer Zach Hill was a man with his own agenda, none of it caring if your sensibilities match up exactly. He’d keep time with the songs, but wouldn’t shut up on the kit during interludes, keeping the crowd ready to strike. Hill is a veteran of the experimental rock scene with Hella and Team Sleep, and while he’s largely abandoned technical virtuosity, his strength and feral improvisations anchored the band, as much as wildness can anchor something. Death Grips are not a band you can meet at Cheer Up’s for a beer after their set, and their music’s all the better for it.
Death Grips, for all their bluster and beats built on discordant industrial, know how to bring out a banger. Early in the set, they already had blitzed through some of their most popular songs, including many Austinites’ first taste of the maximalist pop bliss of “I’ve Seen Footage.” It’s a song designed for aggressive but respectful moshing, creating unity in the crowd. “Inanimate Sensation,” contrary to its name, got many animated, with Death Grips building and building until the maximum release at the end, a line that can’t be published here but suggests that they like iPods more than intimate companionship. The only thing resembling a break in the action was the slow intro of “Turned Off,” which soon ceded into more madness on the floor. Later in the set, “I Break Mirrors With My Face In the United States” is as good of a hardcore song as anything Austin’s bumper crop can produce – Chris Ulsh needs to get on the remix.
Vocalist Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett’s flow was more relaxed than his trademark snarl on their records, but that did not halt the energy. He’s one of those frontmen who gets kids flailing just by showing up. You can’t buy that kind of influence. Burnett carried the kids, and with their moshing and crowd-surfing, they carried him back. Death Grips’ emphasis on providing a whirlwind show that was also meticulously structured showed in their song selection. Only a few songs from the freeform Government Plates showed up, and Moon, which is lighter than their other works, was even less represented. Some of the old Burnett came back towards the end with “Guillotine” and “No Love” where kids screaming lyrics overwhelmed the minimalist bass waves. And even after all this, not even ending with “I Want It I Need It (Death Heated),” a six minute jam of Burnett demanding prurient pleasures to withering electronics, was enough. Everyone wanted more, because who knows if they’ll play again? But, as said earlier, trying to figure them out is too much of a chore. They at least left Austin with an exceptional and memorable performance.
Andy O’Connor is a freelance writer for the American Statesman, Pitchfork, Noisey, Decibel, Indy Week, Radio.com, The Daily Dot and more. Follow him on Twitter at @andy_oconnor.