Attempts to frame digitization within a precise definition abound, and none of them are particularly compelling. The most obvious tactic is to equate it with its physical substrate, to affirm that the digital is “everything that has been developed by, or can be reduced to, the binary — that is bits consisting of 0s and 1s” (Miller and Horst, 2013). But while unquestionably true, this encapsulation is so massively broad as to be inconsequential for how the person on the street might (re-)conceive of the digital age, including its social and political transformations. So another possibility is to move in the opposite direction, to make an improbably grand, metaphysical claim, and affirm that digitalization is essentially the externalization and reification of the human mind or spirit, the final proof and installation of a neo-Cartesian dualism, and that it and “the workings of the computer present […] analogies with people and their mental processes” (Turkle, 1984).
Or better yet, you could listen to Government Plates. It avoids the desiccation and density of academic prose, and instead embodies the digitized era via the kind of immediacy, catharsis, and mania that Death Grips have already become synonymous with after only three years of unpredictability. Dropped with what is now a characteristic lack of forewarning on November 13, the 11-song album may not provide any explicit formulation on digitization and its ramifications, but the torrentiality and instability of its mutant electro-industrial-noise screeds are a near-perfect complement to a world that’s been accelerated, distorted, fractured, and simultaneously fused by the explosion of the digital technologies that have grown out of it. This is a world that’s being seduced and submerged by its own volatile mirror image, its electronic simulacrum, and Government Plates is an album that’s no less mired, no less sinking, despite its unrelenting struggle to liberate itself.
It’s very much a product of the internet age, on more than one level, and perhaps the most well-documented effect of that age is its quickening of the rhythms and processes that constitute as well as alter human civilization, their hastening way beyond the mastery of any one individual. Government Plates reflects this bluntly in the unhinged mutability, tempo, and excess of its songs, pieces that at first present themselves as irrational collages of electronic detritus and electric overload, but then gradually attain shape and rationalization once the strained faculties of the analogue listener finally improvises to their warped logic. In “This is Violence Now (Don’t Get Me Wrong),” rapid-fire micro-samples flash repeatedly and evasively before blinking eyes, supplanted just as quickly as they had emerged by sliding flurries of coarsened synthesizer. Just when this rally begins to tease a comforting air of familiarity, the track’s delirious “chorus” barges in with a hail of scattered percussion and epileptic e-riffage, and with it the whole convulsive lightshow parallels the ceaseless influx and alteration of news stories, songs, film clips, advertisements, games, blogs, and other media that all exact an often immediate response from their audience and that all mockingly exceed that same audience’s capacity for choosing between them in any meaningful, integrated, or non-arbitrary way.
This potentially overwhelming hastening and increase in unsorted information is also rendered starkly audible in the disjunctively metallic hook of “Im Overflow” and via the burbling, fitfully undanceable intro to “Big House,” and together these recurring moments of glut and maximalism — moments that threaten to outpace the cognizance of their recipients — effectively repeat Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “media, or the extensions of man, are ‘make happen’ agents, but not ‘make aware’ agents,” that our “use” of media outstrips our ability to foresee the consequences of and understand such use (McLuhan, 1964). Through this, their ricochets of belligerently artificial notes assume a kind of blind unconsciousness that only magnifies their unstable energy, imbuing cuts like stuttering opener “You Might Think He Loves You For Your Money” and its incontinent “rapping” with a frisson of uncontrollability, an obscure sense that a degree of risk hangs under their technologically amplified caprice.
Yet this emphasis on the unnatural speed of the internet age is generally overplayed, and in many quarters, it’s been noted that after only a brief period of initiation and immersion in digital technologies, society comes to take “all of these for granted and creates normative conditions for their use” (Miller and Horst, 2013), much like how “Two Heavens” stabilizes on a regularized and recurring tripartite structure that moves through the tension of pixellated glockenspiel, the threats of heavy-handed toms, the atmosphered unshackling of those same toms, and then back again for some more. However, this much-commented speed is related to another phenomena, one that not only points to an alternative take on the essence of digitization, but also points towards another defining trait of Government Plates.
To be more specific, speed is a property of the digitized era because digital technologies are concerned solely with representation, that is, with abstracting from the four-dimensional object a mere image or sound that can be converted and reconverted into bits and transmitted through cables. This transmissibility of digitized representations has the consequence of severing representation from context, from the various physical, geographical, physiological and social settings that would have once embedded it in a particular set of constraints determining its interpretation and conceptualization. Now, objects can be represented in atomized isolation, and more decisively the conversion of their representations into a uniform material (i.e., binary code) renders every particle of media compatible and combinable with every other, a historically unprecedented development that entails the possibility of limitless conjunctions, juxtapositions, and amalgamations that would’ve otherwise been impossible (and in many cases unthinkable). Consequently, incoherence, unintelligibilty, and unreality become increasingly tangible properties of the media that gets thrown around the globe and often mixed incestuously without sufficient discrimination, producing chimeras that — because they are no longer broadcast or disseminated within “live contexts” that might contradict their spurious truth-claims — no longer have to worry so much about falsification. Government Plates often deals in an analogous form of seemingly incoherent and unintelligible hybridization, not least with August’s standalone release “Birds.” Here, the oscillations of a woozy, mechanized whistling careen into an abrupt emergency stop, where a completely disparate and blankly psychedelic interlude of pitch-shifted, nursery guitar takes over. Its surrealistic melody is accompanied by MC Ride (Stefan Burnett)’s borderline nonsensical apposition of such lines as, “I’ve got a black hat/ It might live/ It’s got a black hat/It goes big,” which shorn from the locus of their inspiration almost read like they were joined together simply because such a marriage was feasible, and which in concert with the piece’s other spliced segments generates a beautifully jarring tone of crazed disorientation.
Also, because digitization extracts representations from the specific spatio-temporal locations with which they were once bound and relocates them in a single unified domain (i.e., the servers that constitute “the internet”), the digital age can therefore be construed as the age of the fragmentation and collapse of spacetime, its condensation into a “singularity” where objects that would’ve once demanded the navigation of physical distances and durations in order to be sensed can now in some way be experienced simultaneously in the click of a button, or reconfigured however the individual likes. Therefore, digitization insidiously perverts our traditional notions of space and time, and in many respects, Government Plates is the musical consummation of this shift, of what Paul Virilio (1998) described as the shift from “The real city […] to the virtual city, that de-territorialized meta-city.” The way the staccato blips preternaturally machine-gun and cut themselves in half during the strobed rush of “Feels Like A Wheel,” and the way the off-center thrumming and ephemeral volt surges of the track’s intro deviously misshape themselves, all invoke an impression of space, time, and the resultant perceptions being disfigured and congealed by the inexhaustible contortions of disobedient algorithms. The same applies to the overdriven bass riff of “You Might Think He Loves You For Your Money” and its rhythmic backbone, a 6/8 beat that exploits momentary hesitations and unlikely accents to foster the suspicion of a switch in meter, when in actual fact it hasn’t once diverged from its obstinate count. These moments of instrumental play and transformation make what is already primed and highly energized music hit with even more of a scatty impact, and their frequency only multiplies the record’s allusive depth.
A corollary of this line on how representation and spacetime are divorced by digitization, on how representations are thereby commingled and confused within a detached plane, is the observation that representations of the self are similarly dislocated from their points of origin and inserted into a universalized province. In other words, one major aspect of digitization is that it deposes the human body as the primary source or seat of the subject’s identity/presentation/construction and replaces it with data (text, images) that reside permanently and irrevocably within “the cloud,” data that can in theory be accessed, manipulated, reconstituted, and redistributed by anyone with an internet connection (cf. Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace”). The digital age takes the self hostage while at the same time promising to perfect that self, and it’s perhaps this feature of the epoch that Government Plates latches onto more than anything else. From the very beginning of their existence, Death Grips have been resistant to, or at least not entirely comfortable with, the notoriety that’s followed them around and their status as critical darlings, and their utilization of the web to further their career has only added to this tension, as if fueling their apprehension that they no longer (fully) belong to themselves. At several junctures on the album, Burnett appears to acknowledge this in his own scabrously indirect manner, spouting the boast-cum-abuse of “When I spit in your face/ You’ll take what you can get/ Not once have I been had yet” during album closer and glorious rave-up “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching),” which in its bilious refrain of “Fuck who’s watching” acts as a vitriolic denial that the band’s perpetual internet presence and contentious public profile has diluted or violated the identities they had prior to digital entry. Possibly the strongest throe on the album, and including a gorgeous about-face into diffuse electro-reverie, the song hones the paranoiac sublimity of NO LOVE DEEP WEB’s “Artificial Death in the West” into a giddy seesaw of over-excitement and blissed drowsiness, all the while employing such spittle as “Heard you claim we’ve met before/ Always forget who they are” to ridicule the assumption that the internet and digitization has genuinely introduced us to the band.
And speaking of both the self’s fraught digitization and Burnett’s inflammatory vocals, there’s a latent significance in how these take a backseat for much of Government Plates, allowing the dynamics of Andy Morin’s vivid production and Zach Hill’s slippery anchorage to come to the fore in a way that makes the album more musically variegated and eventful than its predecessor. The most simplistic explanation for this is that the record is basically a “stopgap” before the “proper” album to be released next year via Harvest/Capitol, and that Burnett therefore wanted to save the bulk of his new repertory for 2014’s release. However, it would be far more interesting to claim that his often spectral presence here — occasionally whittled down to transitory soundbites and samples (e.g., “This is Violence Now (Don’t Get Me Wrong),” “Feels Like A Wheel,” and “Big House”) — is the result of his figuratively collapsing under the claustrophobic strain of NO LOVE DEEP WEB’s confrontation against the “net” that was closing in on him, and that now we find him for the most part subsumed in the order he sought to resist, lowered to a mere function of programs and protocols. In the fractional repetitions of his voice that haunt the pulsing high-tech of “Government Plates,” for example, we encounter a counterpart to how digitization and the web facilitate indefinite reproductions and cut-ups of the subject’s own performances and outputs, how hundreds of retweets can inexorably distance a single sentence from its original intention, or how for all intents and purposes a home video clip or photograph can, in going “viral,” transmute into something else entirely, all without the agency of the original “author” being involved. Once again, it’s not just the potency of the band’s renegade musical chops or the charged hostility of Burnett’s tirades that make Death Grips so vital and Government Plates so coercive, but the neglected relevance both have to the nature and makeup of our fractious age.
These effusive comments and this review could go on, but suffice it to say that what Death Grips have here, in both their overall aesthetic and this particular freebie, is something that’s both very singular and unpretentiously allegorical. Digitization and the internet have exploded communications to a level of pan-global instantaneousness and universality, but rather than nurturing harmony, cohesion, and understanding, such an evolution has in many cases merely nurtured myopic individuality and aggression to levels of sick genius (witness the flourishing of trolls and of what Kraut et al. (1998) describe as a process of individualization and social/public disengagement), and conversely it has also enabled titanic levels of governmental surveillance/authoritarianism where it once brought hope of empowerment (Morozov, 2012). Government Plates is the personification of this trend and its current status. It’s a record that acknowledges our existence, but only in the most abstract, detached, and antagonistic fashion conceivable, responding to us for the sake of convenience as avatars and palimpsets of decontextualized images, as disembodied, emotionless ciphers who won’t bat an eyelid if the “Fuck you” of “Birds” is thrown at them. If the album were a girlfriend or boyfriend, it would probably break up with us via text message, safe in the knowledge that it won’t have to orient itself to our penetrable humanity. However, luckily for you, its idiosyncratic animus is something to behold, and even if you don’t like it, both the digital age and Burnett himself can reassure you with the verse, “Don’t worry; in a few, you’ll all be somewhere else.”