Sound on Sound is a celebration of the present in the confines of a celebration of the past, putting a music festival smack dab in the middle of a Renaissance Fair grounds. Death Grips are oddly appropriate for the bill, as while they’re very much current, it seems like their days of self-sabotage were a lifetime ago in our Internet-fueled hyperspeed sense of passing. They haven’t been about pranking their fans lately, instead focusing on honing their abrasive rap. Their set at SoS was fine exercise of their abilities, though it lacked a certain amount of punch their past Austin shows had.
It’s not that Death Grips weren’t energetic, it’s that their confrontational vibe doesn’t quite hold up when it’s smattered to festival proportions. At their punky best, like when they played Mohawk last year to great anticipation, they nearly ripped the place in half by not stopping until their set was over. They’re not the type to want to be out in social media, and at Mohawk, they were thrashing in dim red lights that cloaked them appropriately. And at their performance at Day for Night last year in Houston, they were set against a blinding white background, rendering them into black figures where their movements became more important than their appearance.
This time, the opted for the old trick of smothering themselves in blue light, which was a frankly boring way to deter the crowd from getting fire Instagrams. It made them feel slower, like a show by anyone of OVO who isn’t Drake. (And as soon as “Get Got” came on, phones shot up in the air, thwarting their intentions.) No question Zach Hill was playing himself to death like he usually does, but was sound was flattened, removing some of the oomph of his frantic dynamics. He’s as much a star of the group as vocalist Stefan Burnett, if not more, and their set was a weird attempt at decentralizing his power. Burnett too suffered from the vast expanse, as there wasn’t much nuance in his turbulent, rambling style that’s normally provided some of their unpredictable edge. He sounded mush-mouthed at points — where’s the venom in that?
In keeping with “the past comes alive” vibe of SoS, Death Grips have a bit a history with Fun Fun Fun, the fest’s previous incarnation. They played in 2011, pre-major label and major headaches, where their status as a newer, more mysterious band worked in their favor. And after tonight’s performance, it’s probably for the best that they didn’t headline the Black Stage along with Judas Priest and King Diamond, two bands who need big stages for their more theatrical performances.
If Death Grips were playing an aftershow, it’d be guaranteed to pop off, and this, as their only show of the fest, felt something of a letdown. When they did tap into a real energy, though, they’re still unmatched. “Giving Bad People Good Ideas,” from their latest record Bottomless Pit, takes a looping black metal blast beat and blows it up, a symbol of how they can out-metal most modern metal bands. “I’ve Seen Footage” is still as triumphant as it was in 2012, an amped-up pop rager that translates well to a festival crowd.
Hill’s overplaying was the only thing that saved their set from being a total slog. He crowded into Burnett’s comically boastful last line of “Inanimate Sensation,” making “I like my iPod more than f—-ing” even funnier. It was a taste of how devilishly sly they used to be, and their set could have used more of that.