Subtle are catnip for music critics. The actual band that fulfills the oft-spoken, rarely true cliche: they make “future music.” Indeed, the Oakland-based hip-hop/rock/electro six-piece makes music so forward-thinking it’s effectively genre-less. Just when an earth-shaking electro-bass groove reels you in, Dose One spits a tongue-twisting rap verse reminiscent of his Scribble Jam freestyle competition roots. Just when you think you’ve got ’em pegged as a rap group, the band ties itself into a tense gordian knot of sound, a wild sprawl of do-it-yourself sampling, anvil-heavy funk drumming, squiggling keys, itchy guitars, buttery sax licks, and Cello (yes, Cello), unleashing a 45-second jam that sounds like the first Strokes album.

Weird isn’t quite the word for it. It’s as though you’ve been frozen for a few thousand years. In the meantime, earth has colonized Mars and the first great wave of half-man, half-martian bands have emerged, with Subtle leading the way, spitting lyrics in a strange dialect you aren’t sure is English, directly channeling William Burroughs to produce a musical Naked Lunch of sorts, a chopped-up pastiche of elements thrown helterskelter at the canvas. And somehow, it all ends up working.

Subtle front-man Dose-One stalks the stage like a rampaging caveman on the brink of a nervous breakdown, rocking a black and white striped mask (see the album cover above), looking like an indie-rap version of Gene Simmons. Not to mention the black and white ruffled 70s prom undershirt he’s wearing, looking straight out of a Dumb and Dumber wardrobe sale. Behind the drum kit, the band’s drummer crashes snares so rapid and furious you’d swear he was a Run DMC drum machine in 1986. Meanwhile, Anticon veteran Jel is snapping his fingers hard against the sampler, in full union with the vibrating hellish sound.

Subtle: Miming One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest
At the moment when everything gets too dense and impenetrable, someone busts out a whistling gorgeous flute solo, or a spine-tingling cello riff or a Charlie Parker-inspired sax line. Dose-One flings plastic silverware from a faux-shrunken head dragged on-stage, with full operatic histrionics. Then at the very moment when you’re about to write him off as another melodramatic Bay Area hipster, he unleashes an extemporaenous and very funny monologue about the previous night’s show in Pomona, when a teenager at his first rap show, asked the band if he had to worry about getting shot.

The short was set just 50 minutes, of nothing but white-pitch intensity, with beads of sweat trickling down off the face of every band member. Quite frankly, it would’ve been hard to handle much more. When people usually call music “challenging,” its short-hand for avant-garde post-modern wankery, but Subtle is that rare “challenging” band that actually has the goods, as the brilliance of their garbled often-abrasive sound only becomes unraveled with repeated listenings. It’s certainly not for everyone. They’ll inevitably antogonize hip-hop purists turned off by the relentless experimentation. Admittedly, its a lot to handle and Dose-One’ s reedy whine can certainly get annoying, but if you can move past it, his lyrics and the band’s sonic shape-shifiting are always intriguing.

Subtle aren’t perfect. But even in their failures they partially succeed, by constantly pushing things forward, something particularly notable in the mostly backwards thinking world of hip-hop. And when they succeed, they’re are one of the most interesting innovative bands working today. I’m not gonna lie, this isn’t the kind of rap I want to listen to on the regular. Give me Nas, Ghostface or even Edan, any day. But in their own not-so-subtle way, these dudes are making music far outside the boundaries of most musican’s limited imaginations. And that makes them alright in my book.

Buy For Hero: For Cool

MP3: Subtle-“A Tale of Apes I”
MP3: Subtle-“Midas Gutz”

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