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Strictly Hammers regularly play shows in the Twin Ports and they set themselves apart from typical hop-hop acts primarily due to their backing tracks that are often more experimental and electronic than drum and bass oriented. The general feel of one of their live shows comes off more like a high energy rock performance. The project has been developing to what it is now for five years.
While this electronic element can be detected in live shows, their new album “Tempus Fugit” (translated as “time flies”) deviates from a lot of the norms of what one would expect in a hip-hop album and it could be said that it is as much of an ambient-electronic album as much as it is a hip-hop album. “We started singing to stretch the boundaries of expression and add vitality to the genre,” said Matt Ihle, the primary vocalist of Strictly Hammers, also known as MC Crimson Hammers.
Behind the layers of the tracks is Midi-Vil, also known as Nick Pawlenty. “Nick had the final say in ordering and arrangements but we wanted it to have a dynamic and almost theatrical flow,” said Crimson. It’s fair to say that the album does have a theatrical flow in that there are a lot of dramatic piano and string sounds involved in the tracks and it feels like several of the songs belong on a movie soundtrack.
The first track, “Calliope,” gets the listener primed to the realization that they are in store for something different. The samples of the blended and chopped up parts of a voice clip, “calling all three active agents,” are both layered, sped up and slowed down which creates a bizarre opening to the album. The next track, “Just a Dream” eases the tension of the intro track and is one of the more lighter tracks on this album that bends genre and spans everywhere from ambient to rock. The experience of the album starts out with a positive feel, “I woke up, shoes untied and a patch of sunshine, everything I need will become mine, every dream we ever had of a life at one time. One time to close my eyes and unwind.”
One of the stand out tracks early on in the album is “Imaginary Friends” where the airy and swirling tracks of synth sounds, piano, ambient backing vocals are held down by the beat and tightly spoken lyrics that involve a smooth flow throughout with a few intentional stalls and quick flares of words.
The album starts out early with the first of two instrumental tracks; three, if counting “Calliope.” The track “Art Form,” is a beautiful layering of contemplative piano parts that pull back and forth between being “clean” and on their own and then into a dense spectrum of electronic sounds that are heavily manipulated and altered in other areas of the song.
I think that instrumental songs can be great and can add a very interesting touch to the general feel of an album. Songs like “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys and “Melloncollie and the Infinite Sadness” by The Smashing Pumpkins certainly held down a feel for the albums they were on and it seems fitting since the albums carry the names of both tracks. Even on a very dark album like “The Downward Spiral” by Nine Inch Nails, songs like “A Warm Place” add a sense of deeper meaning or genuineness to an album. With the two instrumental songs from Strictly Hammers, I think it was a good but risky call. The thing that gets me about a lot of instrumentals in contemporary music is that they tend to stay put. When looking at the examples given, none of them actually really go anywhere and just hang in a certain zone and feel. The two instrumental tracks of the album, “Art Form” and “Bombs & Kittens” are no exception in that they keep in one realm musically and create a definite feel for the album.
Songs like “Pacymist” are on of the more straight forward hip-hop songs as far as the backing track. It’s held down with the beat, bass and piano sample. Besides a few other sounds, it’s the lyrics that standout with plenty of metaphor dealing with life, interpersonal reflections, social and political statements. “The music (lyrically) is about being grateful but also recognizing behavior patterns and opportunity,” said Crimson.
As with a lot of hip-hop projects, there is usually some sort of collaboration with other artists. A developing trend that is gaining more and more use is musicians working with each other online. This has been going on for quite sometime, but with technology where it’s at today, it has never been more easy. The track has artist Ryan King from Layfayette, IN on guitar who has been working with the group for over two years. Adding live instruments over having repeated sampled tidbits of sound always makes a song more human and the track “Here Comes the Escape” certainly makes that point.
One of the other tracks that incorporates live guitar parts is “Zombie 5/0.” Local musician Rob Plourde, also known as Nemo, shreds the guitar with some very intense vibrato effects through distortion.
A local musician I didn’t expect to see on this album is Jessica Myshack on the track “Hengki’s Ballad.” There are two primary tracks with her vocals in the song. One, is sultry spoken word parts with some tasteful delay and the other, totally effect laden haunting ambient vocals that come in and out of the spoken parts. If they were going for “theatrical,” they are getting close to something with this.
The last few tracks such as 4th and Wall sessions and HomeGrown Winter Fiasco Teaser break away from the album and show a more live instrument aspect of the group. “Fourth and Wall is in the artist district in lower town St. Paul and that’s also where we met Dem Atlas from the song ‘Bad Actress,’” said Crimson. There are live guitars and percussion on both tracks and the recording quality greatly differs from the rest of the album.
I haven’t had the chance to review very many hip-hop albums and I’m happy that “Tempus Fugit” came my way. It pushes genres in it’s own original way, it’s lyrically deep at times yet doesn’t push any specific buttons. The arrangement of the backing tracks are often astonishing, well thought out, yet experimental and the flow of the raps are tight. The album can be found at strictlyhammers.bandcamp.com. Strictly Hammers also has a DIY music video for the song “Bad Actress” off the album.