Suns of AGNARKEA: On Barb + James 4ever

Ben Grenrock explores the Richmond producer's recent EP.
By    July 10, 2019

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Ben Grenrock looks down at his shoes when playing guitar.

Across his prolific discography AGNARKEA (pronounced “anarchy”) has developed a unique dexterity for molding his wide rage of influences into something nameless and new. Armed with FL Studio and a MIDI controlled, the 22 year old producer out of Richmond, Virginia has a unique knack for finding the emotional common ground within extremely distinct genres, using them to bridge the gaps between rap and dance music in such a way that the genre seems to mutate at an almost molecular level. 

Though Southern revival hip-hop and electronic dance music are the main reservoirs he draws from, ANGARKEA can seemingly make any sonic puzzle piece fit. On past albums radical/info.vol6, TRANSHUMANISM, and Black Helicopters AGNARKEA wove songs out of southern rap, techno, drum and bass, punk, ambient, boom bap, and new wave, creating strange, instrumental hybrids. He links them all together less by contrasting novel elements—the roving bass of Memphis rap or the glittery ambient pads that are one of his most potent signatures—than by drawing out one or more of a given genre’s thematic qualities. Darkness, wonder, paranoia, rage, swagger and the sublime are as much his building blocks as hi-hats, kicks, and cowbells.

It’s this focus on sensation rather than sound that allowed to him to unite two genres as wildly opposite as shoegaze and southern rap so effectively on his EP Barb + James 4ever, pasting them together with healthy dollops of drum and bass and techno. Sounding as if 90’s DnB producer Shogun made a beat for Tommy Wright III by sampling Slowdive’s guitars, Barb + James 4ever’s four songs are a master class in dredging pathos out of a spectacularly diverse sonic palate, and a glimpse into what it is that makes someone’s music taste eclectic. 

The EP finds AGNARKEA adding more live instruments to his arsenal than he has in the past, warming up his typically cyberpunk aesthetic to something closer to body temperature. Laying melancholy guitar arpeggios over various combinations of frenetic drum patterns, ethereal pads, and digital noise, the songs feel somehow both introspective and weaponized, turned up and morose. 

On “further,” he takes listeners on a thematic odyssey, from sparse and reflective to heavy and aggressive, before it breaks apart into sublime spaciousness and then plunges into an explosion of moshable grit. These transitions never feel forced. Instead, as different as the sections may be, each one feels like the natural progression from the last. “psy SE” does something similar with its instrumentation. 

Again, introspective shoegazey guitar fits right in with hip-hop sounds that would snarl in another context. Thick synthesizers that elsewhere might have turned up a techno dance floor, give the song an unstable swagger. The impressive diversity of those two tracks are bookended by “danger set in” and “choo choo,” which may sound slightly more like what you’d imagine a shoegaze/hip-hop fusion would, but are colored with a surprising dance floor sensibility—a friendly directive to get up and move wrapped up in their respective sneer and sigh.

As a whole, Barb + James 4ever sounds like an oversaturated mind grappling with the overwhelming variety of stimuli modernity subjects it to, using personal emotions as landmarks and lifesavers to try and stay afloat in a sea of contrasting information. Sometimes it sounds like drowning, and sometimes it sounds like enlightenment, but deployed with AGNARKEA’s artistry, it’s always personal, it’s always original, and it always bumps.

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