Review: Death Grips blaze through quick, chaotic set at St. Petersburg's State Theatre
Trolls, art-punks, nihilists, agents of unbridled chaos: Call Death Grips what you will, but at least they know the value of a good night’s sleep.
Why else would one of the punk world’s most antagonistic bands wrap up Thursday’s sold-out concert at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg at a little-old-lady-like 9:30 p.m., early enough to catch the last half of Project Runway? Who could’ve seen that coming?
Then again, anyone who expects normalcy from Death Grips is dreaming. This is a band that, over the last five years, has ripped up record contracts, ditched major tours, no-showed for gigs, leaked their own albums and, technically, broken up — although since their supposed split in 2014, they’ve already released a ferocious double album, The Powers That B, and embarked on one of their most extensive tours yet. Retirement, it seems, doesn't suit them.
So why were waves of young fans packing the State Theatre by 8 p.m. for a gig with no opening act? Pretty simple: When Death Grips announces a rare show in your town, it means an hour of relentlessly punishing noise and fury, the likes of which you may never see again. All you can do is hope they show.
The Sacramento, Calif., trio strode onstage into a haze of red lights and fog, drummer Zach Hill shirtless within seconds and singer-rapper Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett from the get-go. Sequence-and-sample man Andy Morin blasted squeals of dissonance and squelches of bass through the State’s columnal speakers as a mosh pit hopped to life.
Give them this: Death Grips do not skimp on energy. Every song is a downhill rush of adrenaline and testosterone and rage that doesn’t let up once it’s started. Hill in particular is a pummelling percussionist, thrashing out unrestrained, uncontrollable rhythms on Got Got and wringing a deeper, slightly tribal beat out of Lock Your Doors. More than once, he pounded so furiously his sticks shot out of his hands like knives.
The tattooed, skeletal Burnett has the air of a street preacher, exhorting his gospel of madness in a bludgeoning basso profondo akin to that of Rick Ross. As the fully clothed Morin lobbed bombs of bass and dissonance behind him, Burnett leaned over the churning crowd, challenging them to bounce beneath his gaze, clasping and howling into his mic, thrashing and collapsing and submitting to full-body shivers on (deep breath) You Might Think He Loves You For Your Money But I Know What He Really Loves You For It’s Your Brand New Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.
Unwieldy titles aside, with performances so physically unrelenting, you can see how a major label like Epic Records might fall for a group of outsiders like Death Grips. But like all popular artists, they also know how to write a really good song, even if it’s not always evident beneath an avalanche of noise.
I’ve Seen Footage, from 2012’s The Money Store — maybe the only Death Grips album approaching anything close to mainstream accessibility — was a grinding and contagious groove so classic you could imagine a cleaned-up cover coming from someone like CeeLo. The same album’s Hacker saw Burnett dancing, thrusting and even raising the roof just a little as he elicited a call-and-response from the crowd over a dance-rock beat not so far removed from Korn’s Got the Life.
And the show-closing I Want It I Need It (Death Heated), from 2011’s Exmilitary, was a crashing cacophony of angst over a simple early hip-hop beat, something from the Beastie Boys or Run-DMC playbook. The track’s industrial menace was juiced with old-school rap swagger, a combo that sent the sold-out house back out onto Central not just pumped up, but dancing.
The clock said 9:26 p.m. Death Grips did not return for an encore. But after an hour that fast and furious, can you blame them for turning in early?
-- Jay Cridlin