The Mountain Will Fall is the first new DJ Shadow record in five years.
Josh Davis has nothing to prove. That’ll happen when your first effort becomes a classic that at least sneaks into the conversation for one of the best albums of the ‘90s. Because of the landmark achievement of 1996’s Endtroucing….., Davis even made it into the pages of the Guinness World Records for putting out the first album composed entirely of samples. As if that’s not enough, Jonny Greenwood would cite the record as a significant influence for OK Computer. Despite three other notable albums since then, Davis has spent the past 20 years in the shadow of his greatest work. In 2012, DJ Shadow even got the Greatest Hits treatment, something that tends to happen once an artist’s essential canon is more or less set. But Davis still has a few surprises for us; his fifth DJ Shadow album, The Mountain Will Fall, finds him shifting away from the turntables that made him famous and instead trying live instrumentation and modern production software on for size.
In some ways, it’s surprising that it took Davis this long to try something so new as DJ Shadow. In a 2011 interview, he lamented the fact that the high bar he set for himself means people expect him to “repeat Endtroducing….. over and over again.” He’s certainly not doing that here. The Mountain Will Fall is mostly refreshing in its shift in focus, and its contemporary feel shows that Davis is as much influenced by other modern artists as they are with his decades-old groundbreaking approach.
After a somewhat abrasive instrumental opener, guest El-P jars the listener by spitting “Picture this/ I’m a bag of dicks/ Put me to your lips/ I am sick/ I will punch a baby bear in its shit” as Run the Jewels turn in a fun but somewhat underwhelming featured spot on “Nobody Speak” (at one point, Killer Mike slant-rhymes “your bitch” and “your kids”). The track works more from the inclusion of crisp Spaghetti Western instrumentation than from the rapid-fire bars from Mike and El. The opposite is true of “The Sideshow,” with a guest spot from Ernie Fresh turning back the clock to some scrumptious old school, bust-a-move hip-hop over Shadow’s scratch track.
Of course, the album isn’t entirely free of samples. On “Three Ralphs,” Davis warps a snippet of Timothy Leary’s voice (one that was also used in 2010 by Prince of Denmark) into something far more sinister than the famed psychonaut’s otherworldly spoken-word. The darkness continues later with “Depth Charge,” a track that sounds like the anthem for a full-scale naval siege on Cthulhu’s lair.
Elsewhere, the album lightens up considerably, such as on jazz-infused “Ashes to Oceans,” which is soothing in its improvisational diversions. But there are missteps aplenty, too, as “California” devolves into repetitive thumps and skitters that are actually kind of difficult to endure. Meanwhile, “Mambo” splits the difference, with samples of a dance instructor’s instructions overlaid on glitchy production work that never quite hits the mark but isn’t all that far off either.
The Mountain Will Fall is the first new DJ Shadow record in five years, and only the second in 10. For an artist whose masterstroke came with his first swing, oversized expectations will always factor in. With that in mind, Mountain won’t bowl you over, but it’s quality work from a quality artist who will forever live in his own shadow.