A lot has happened since Aesop Rock released his last album, None Shall Pass: NYC-based indie rap label DefJux went into indefinite hiatus (Aes went to Minnesota-based Rhymesayers for this release), his best friend Camu Tao succumbed to lung cancer, five years have passed, and Aes now appears in public with a hobo beard, appearing as a survivor of the apocalyptic tale he’s put together for Skelethon. Knowing he was taking a long time bringing this album to life, he even forwent the use of long-time producer Blockhead and put his latest album together on his own terms. Welcome back, Aesop.
Skelethon is end-to-end, back-to-front Aesop Rock. Aes has had a hand in producing forever, but skipping out on Blockhead’s samples leaves him to assemble a score of dark, complex storms that highlight the album’s grim mood (one that would make Cage feel right at home). With all due respect to Blockhead, I don’t know why Aes waited so long. Aesop’s discs have always been murky and pessimistic, but like DefJux founder El-P, it seems like he’s had a ton of fun with the theme. Opener “Leisureforce” is a cool, motivated assault while the purring bass of the ambulatory “Zero Dark Thirty” rings like the distant sequel of None Shall Pass’s zombie-themed “Coffee”. “Cycles to Gehenna” could line a Mad Max film and “Gopher Guts” could be sobering end boss music.
From Beck-like arrangements of fuzzy instruments to “Fryerstarter”‘s tubular bells, Aesop cracks an ambitious tool chest of instrumentation wide open. The songs are less paper mache tapestries like his previous works and more like sonic pipe bombs with compositions that make Kanye’s latest beats look elementary. In fine tradition, Aesop’s lyrics make as much sense as ever, which is to say very little, but host an interesting narrative if you pay close enough attention. I can see how people wouldn’t dig his well-oiled monotone flow, but that’s part of the ‘Rock appeal. The Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson pops on a few tracks as a pleasant speak-singing distraction that provides some of the album’s little “comic” relief, which brings me to my one big complaint about the disc: it’s simply not as goofy as None Shall Pass or Bazooka Tooth. Aesop is the Dark Knight here. He isn’t up for a good time, he’s here to paint brusque soundscapes, ones that haphazardly bury his lyrics at times.
Still, I would’ve settled for half the album that Skelethon became, and yet here we are.