DJ Shadow – ‘The Mountain Will Fall’ Review

The iconic DJ Shadow returns with a mixtape-like album that frustrates as much as it fascinates

‘Endtroducing’, DJ Shadow’s debut, made for one of the most innovative and cool albums of the ’90s. An instrumental hip-hop record built entirely from samples, for all its fragmentary nature it felt smart like arthouse cinema, stirring like a classical symphony and cool like imported trainers. It’s the sort of record that’s difficult to top, but the odd thing about Shadow – a Californian crate digger named Josh Davis – is that he hasn’t really tried. Sure, he played a key role in UNKLE’s ‘Psyence Fiction’ in 1998, an ambitious concept project that found him and James Lavelle directing guests like Thom Yorke and Richard Ashcroft. But on the whole, Davis has followed that very ’90s line of reacting against success: take records like 2006’s ‘The Outsider’, an inconsequential meld of left-field rap and indie-rock that fell shy of making any statement at all.

On paper, ‘The Mountain Will Fall’ – the first Shadow LP in five years – sounds ambitious, mixing sampling with live instrumentation including horns and woodwind, and lining up guest spots from names as diverse as Run The Jewels and neoclassical auteur Nils Frahm. It starts pretty well. The title track chops up breathy new-age synths, El-P and Killer Mike take shots at Donald Trump on the riotous boom-bap of ‘Nobody Speak’, while ‘The Sideshow’ is a funky scratch jam wreathed in vinyl crackle that’s pure throwback, but exquisitely done.

It’s not long, though, until it loses its way. Davis’s eclecticism, once a trump card, now feels like a flaw. ‘Depth Charge’ is a clanging desert dirge, ‘Ghost Town’ melds trap beats and John Carpenter synths – but both are interesting ideas briefly toyed with, then discarded. The immaculate sleight of hand that once characterised a Shadow production, meanwhile, has been replaced by a more fiddly, finickity style. ‘Ashes To Oceans’ is a little oasis of calm featuring trumpeter Matthew Halsall, but it’s ruined by a midsection where a drum break is sped up and slowed down for no clear reason whatsoever. The Run The Jewels spot aside, the tone is pretty po-faced.

Mostly, it leads you to reflect on the genius of ‘Endtroducing’. That album took thousands of minuscule fragments and spun them into a masterpiece. ‘The Mountain Will Fall’ sounds, at best, like a decent mixtape made by someone with pretty good taste. Thing is, you can probably make one of those yourself.