There seems to be no less likely harbinger of great music to come than a 45-minute Nike commissioned jogging soundtrack. And yet, somehow, the masterminds behind the ubiquitous swoosh have proven themselves as artistic soothsayers. After LCD Soundsystem released their entry in the Original Run series, 45:33, they emerged on the other side with Sound of Silver, a new peak and possibly the best album of the year. Likewise, Aesop Rock issued All Day earlier this year, only to follow it up with his own (admittedly unrelated) stunning achievement, None Shall Pass, which doubles as his most accessible and most sonically dazzling release to date.
On Aesop Rock’s fourth full-length album, not counting his athletic iPod symphony, the New Yorker gone San Franciscan displays a renewed empowerment and sense of clarity, though not for lack of projects keeping him busy. Since 2003’s Bazooka Tooth, Aes (Ian Bavitz to his mama) has issued a seven-track EP, two film scores and, yeah, that jogging thing, not to mention a children’s book of sorts titled “The Next Best Thing.” Finally back to making a rap record after these three eventful years, Aesop Rock is at once familiar and ecstatically surprising. Though he didn’t leave quite as big a gap as labelmate (and label head) El-P did between Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, his own latest effort is nonetheless a Def Jux essential, on par with El’s stunning return.
None Shall Pass finds Aes sharing production duties with longtime chum and collaborator Blockhead, who steps up with some outstanding beds of samples and beats, creating a stunning and sometimes eerie aural atmosphere to match Aesop’s surrealist verses. He drops some ominous funk on “Getaway Car,” oozes a billowing cloud of trip-hop haze in the symphonic noir of “No City,” and unleashes a dark disco on the amazing title track, which is about the most aurally impressive hip-hop single you’ll hear all year. From Aes’ own high-speed verse spitting (“flash that watery gold/ jittery zeitgeist/ wither by the watering hole/ water patrol“) to its melancholy arcade beats, it’s a damn thing of beauty.
Block’s spindly jazz samples and educational astronomy reels provide a smoky cool backdrop for Aes’ clever lament on Pluto’s demotion on “Bring Back Pluto” (“and then there were eight…“), creating an impressive synergy. The two take a turn for the dramatic with “Fumes,” a tragic tale of a drug-addicted couple’s relationship gone to shit, spoken over a cinematic swell of strings and bouncy bass. On a bit of a lighter note, however, Aesop finds a pirate muse on “The Harbor Is Yours,” mentioning “hoisting the jolly roger” and “Davy J-J-J-Jones” over a deep, fluid funk.
In the production department, Aesop Rock is no slouch either, crafting his share of badass tracks as well. While Blockhead’s approach leaves a bit more room for subtlety, Aesop remains solid with the bangers and the epics, sometimes in the same song. Leadoff track “Keep Off the Lawn” is as raw and propulsive as an opener should be, with crusty basslines and the crowd-ready refrain of “how alive? Too alive!” “Catacomb Kids” sustains a heavy west coast funk as Aesop drops non-sequiturs about “visions of chickens that looked like R. Crumb drew `em.” On “Five Fingers,” he lays down some sickly saxophone samples that may or may not have been lifted from an album released in 1984.
Though None Shall Pass doesn’t have nearly the level of guest appearances as El-P’s effort from earlier this year, it does boast a few notable vocalists other than Aes himself. Cage unleashes a frightening verse on being committed to a mental institution on “Getaway Car,” while El-P big ups “action packed blasphemy” and schadenfreude in “Gun for the Whole Family” and lends a chorus to a loose capitalism-themed rant on “39 Thieves.” Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is the most surprising guest here, singing on final track “Coffee,” though he’s also the most out of place, which is mostly a result of his own nasal voice being better suited to his own compositions.
There are levels of depth in every dimension to None Shall Pass that each subsequent listen finds the listener taking one step further into its dense landscape, some new sonic treat or witty quip coming into focus each time. I haven’t tried jogging to it, myself, though I wouldn’t advise anyone do so—None Shall Pass creates a musical world so mesmerizing, one runs the risk of becoming lost and stepping into oncoming traffic.
MP3: “None Shall Pass”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.