The rap-rock fusion album is a hard one to get right. Examples of success in this weird little corner of music do exist – Dälek’s white-noise debut from 1998 and Death Grips’ 2011 album ‘Ex-Military’ come to mind – but generally we’re talking frat-boy angst in an Adidas tracksuit or, even worse, Kid Rock.
Banks & Steelz – an unlikely collaboration between Interpol frontman Paul Banks and Wu-Tang Clan producer genius RZA – have produced something of a rap-rock Frankenstein’s monster. Debut album ‘Anything But Words’ is a lumpy, aesthetically awkward listen defined by disjointed songwriting and clashing styles.
It’s hard enough pairing hip-hop with muscular rock (see Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’, the original rap/rock collab), but trickier still is merging it with the wispy, touchy-feely sensibilities of American indie rock. The majority of the songs here follow the same formula, with RZA spitting gnarled verses until Banks enters with a completely incongruous chorus. Such empty grandiosity and doe-eyed introspection are very much the work of a chronic indie navel-gazer who, on 2002’s ‘NYC’, sang with utmost moody melodrama “I’m sick of spending these lonely nights, training myself not to care”. It’s tonally jarring, disruptive and ill-fitting. The two men may well be close friends outside the studio, but musically they’re like ships in the night.
Their attempts to forge clattering guitar-rap from the basic components of indie rock make for weak rum, as on ’Giant’, subtly inspired by Outkast’s punkish ‘B.O.B’. The almost arrhythmic ‘Speedway Senorita’, meanwhile, is as bad a piece of instrumental rap as you’ll hear this decade. It doesn’t help matters that Banks’ newfound soprano constantly brings to mind Ozzy Osbourne stinker ‘Changes’.
There’s more cohesion when RZA tailors his production towards Banks’ eternal melancholy, as on the contemplative likes of the title-track and ‘Wild Season’, which works simply because everyone involved (including guest singer Florence Welch) are on the same page emotionally. Another good ‘un, the mysterious ‘One By One’, sustains its smoky flow via smooth handovers. On ‘Point Of View’ – which features Method Man and Masta Killa – it’s an excellent novelty to hear RZA construct Shaolin-style productions using six strings, but as is the case throughout the album, it sounds a little like Paul Banks getting in the way of good hip-hop. The same is true of ‘Love + War’, which even Ghostface Killah’s flow can’t save.
RZA recently told Rolling Stone that “Interpol’s music … it’s like if RZA had been born in the rock world”, but there’s little evidence of that meeting of minds here. The New Yorkers are both masters of atmosphere, either in RZA’s reimagining of the city as a supernatural netherworld or Interpol’s vision of former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Big Apple, where the bohemian classes have been driven into its dank underbelly. Sadly though, the airy and well-lit ‘Anything But Words’ is bereft of any such mood, as if they’ve neglected to exploit that shared darkness of the soul. You feel simply using Banks’ doom-filled baritone over a host of RZA soundscapes would’ve been a better way to go. Instead, the disappointing result is a couple of arch musical stylists sounding a tiny bit naff.