October 6, 2014

the-highlands

Jordan Pedersen is workinonit

I don’t envy the instrumentalist. Us writers get all these words to establish a setting, tell a story. But he without words has to tell a story through sound and mood alone. It’s gotta be hard. That’s probably why most producers stick with the same milieu: Blaxploitation, dusty grooves, teased afros tinged with weed smoke. If you know the players, all they have to do is nod in their direction. It’s no disrespect to the form’s noblest practitioners, but it’s when the producers picks a different world – Clams Casino’s hallucinogenic orchestras or Alchemist’s Three Days of the Condor paranoia, for instance – that I really stand up and take notice.

Atlanta producer Burn One’s new album, The Highlands, feels like a world unto itself. On his beats, Burn One’s mostly of the “get out of the guy’s way” school of thought. He doesn’t assemble obstacle courses for his rappers to traverse. His beat for Jackie Chain’s blunted Hard Boiled shootout “Don’t Violate” typifies this approach: it’s little more than a few wah-wah guitars, some tip-toeing synth plinks, and a few swirling crescendoes to set the mood. He lets Jackie’s pimp-slap rhymes do the heavy lifting.

Not so on The Highlands, which takes the omnivorous sonic palette of 2012’s The Ashtray a step further. Here, Burn One puts everything on the table: he cascades from smeary psychadelia to tribal drums to post-punk guitars, often within the same song. I’ve been listening to this thing nonstop for two weeks, and I still find myself having to check my player to see if the track has changed. “Beyond Shatter” contains at least three distinct sections, the proceedings bound together more by feeling than by sound: it starts as a Spanish guitar-flecked stomper at dusk, reverses into a bleary-eyed midnight seance, and then changes direction one more time into a frenetic, breakbeat-packed morning rave. All in less than five minutes.

“Mocassin” marries Native American tribal thump to Tuareg mysticism, and crunchy electronics preside. The watery islander guitars of “Gone to Puerto Rico” belie a bonafide funk groove. “Moonbows” lets a drunken tenor sax stumble through its twilight soundscape, and, then for good measure, changes shape almost entirely halfway through, becoming a paranoid night chase.

Running throughout is a virtuoso deployment of guitars: sometimes they’re psychedelic, sometimes they’re serrated, other times they’re wispy Jimi Hendrix-influenced. Guitars are a tricky thing in rap music. Lay them on too thickly, and you land in rap rock adjacent. Burn One puts the guitar front and center on The Highlands – see the future mysticism of “No One Told Me There Was Going to be a Band” – and manages never to wind up with Linkin Park.

Despite all the forward-thinking touches, Burn One grounds the proceedings in the righteous booty rumble of traditional southern hip-hop. Mannie Fresh, Pimp C, Organized Noize: in Burn One, you can hear all the hallmarks of the originators, but he gives them a futuristic spin that rises above the slavish traditionalism of guys like Big K.R.I.T.

Maybe it’s too soon to say so, but I’d say The Highlands ends up positioning Burn One as a kind of southern J Dilla: a studied beat scholar with a restless desire to push things forward. He has the sonic vocabulary and ideas not just to participate in the conversation, but to lead it.

Stream the album at DJ Booth

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