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CD Review: Rob Swift – The Architect

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At first glance, the marriage of hip-hop with classical music might not seem the most likely of pairings. But within the world of turntablism, it's actually not without ample precedent. The Invisible Scratch Piklz were long experimenting with the idea of a DJ crew as orchestra; instead of doing "battle," each member was contributing a scratch instrument to the greater whole (which sometimes even included classical or orchestral soundtrack covers). Ditto for Rob Swift with the X-Ecutioners, where they also borrowed some ideas from operatic structure — a concept record with featured songs (or "arias") interspersed with skits and samples (or "recitative") — to a scratch album format.

So the idea of Rob Swift mining classical music samples as the primary focus for his latest project, The Architect, doesn't seem so far-fetched. And in many ways, it works quite well. The album is divided into acts: an introductory section, followed by the "Rabia" act, then an intermission, a "Lower Level" section, and then the outro grouping. Individual tracks remain mostly very brief (so don't let the eighteen total tracks make you think this is going to be long-winded), and generally flow into one another. It's also mostly instrumental — with the exception of brief samples entering in — apart from two tracks featuring Breez Evahflown. Breez serves as MC, not only in the hip-hop sense, but in an event sense. His contributions bookend The Architect as he both welcomes you to the proceedings and concludes the festivities.

The primary introductions are provided courtesy of Swift in the title track, where the concept is explained courtesy of samples; and then with Evahflown in "Principio," which is more of an ode to Swift's abilities and the art form. From there we move on to the "Rabia" tracks, which are some of the most active on the record. They incorporate everything from strings, Hammond organ and some pretty tight-knit scratch acrobatics. The sound here (but also throughout the album) is left to minor keys, which can sometimes cast a menacing edge, as it's more or less used exclusively (especially when bumped up against the rather dissonant "Intermission"). The "Lower Level" tracks dial the tempo down a bit and come off as slightly more experimental. Exotic percussion and horn lines intermingle with some deep beats here, and it's an enjoyable excursion into the darker side of the album's concept.

But for the most part, the energy is kept high throughout. Samples of strings and winds are primarily used for dramatic builds and stabs of dynamic punctuation. And while the beat stays strong, tempos and song structure often change dramatically within tracks. It's like he's taking you on a sight-seeing tour of the entire city, but cramming it all into the space of minutes rather than hours. Thick beats are quickly followed by more exposed orchestral sections, before moving back to something more driving, but always keeping things shifting and changing. "Spartacus" is probably the best self-contained track to use as an example, wherein the frequent use of Moussorgsky's "Night On Bald Mountain" delivers some tension from the strings.

The Architect is an enjoyable, if brief, set that finds Swift comfortably and ably playing roles of both conductor as well as technician. It feels quite new, and Swift avoids any hints of using classical music source material as a gimmick or crutch. There are some heady constructions being built here, and the whole thing comes off as an ever-evolving and deeply musical journey. However, its brevity is also a liability. At roughly thirty-five minutes in totality, it spends almost the first quarter of that with stacked introductory material so that by the time you get to the "meat" of the set, it ultimately feels like an EP. The end result comes off more as a proof of concept than a fully realized vision. However, what is there is expertly done, and leaves you itching for more. The orchestral samples help thicken the feel of the production, and mixed with expert beats and rapid-fire scratching, it's a rather intoxicating mix. Although I might have wished for more here, I can always hope for more later.

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About David R Perry