Lil Ugly Mane

(Copyright © 2018 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of Use )
Mista Thug Isolation (2012), 6.5/10
Three Sided Tape Volume One & Two (2013), 5/10
The Weeping Worm (2014), 7/10 (EP)
Oblivion Access (2015), 7/10
Third Side Of Tape (2015), 6/10
Volcanic Bird Enemy and The Voiced Concern (2021), 7.5/10
Singles (2023), 5/10

Lil Ugly Mane, the project of Virginia-based Travis Miller, who had already released EPs as Across and recorded the album 11 Tape Hymns (2008) as a member of Head Molt (with Gary Stevens, Leah Peah, Robert Guynn, Joshua Hickey and Leo Hienzel), debuted with several mixtapes and the EPs Turns Into (2012) and Uneven Compromise (2012). The album Mista Thug Isolation (Hundebiss, 2012) was largerly a tribute to early 1990s hip-hop music that frequently outperformed the original. After the electronic collage of Mista Thug Isolation, piano jazz and a minimalist trumpet prop up the many-voice chatter of Serious Shit, a contrast of voices (human vs chipmunk vs alien) engage with the syncopated chaos of Wishmaster, electronic effects merge with three staccato piano notes and dense Caribbean percussion for Hoeish Ass Bitch, and so on: each song embodies an eccentric musical persona. He bends to his will the extraterrestrial soundscape of Cup Fulla Beetlejuice, the easy-listening strings and vocals of Mona Lisa Overdrive, the hypnotically dissonant music-box No Slack In My Mack. It is mesmerizing the way a base of soft jazz is hijacked by Breezem Out or the way melodrama and sarcasm are fused in the arrangement of Slick Rick.

Then the single Prelude To Panopticon - "On Doing An Evil Deed Blues" announced the retirement of Lil Ugly Mane.

Then came the monumental two-hour compilation Three Sided Tape Volume One & Two (2013). There is little to salvage from this pile of debris. Each volume is divided in three "sides". Six minutes into the Side One there's a suspenseful music-box, and five minutes later the voices are manipulated to generate a feverish Brazilian-ish dance. Twenty minutes into Side Two the music sink into an alien swamp, but it is hard to avoid tedious spoken-word on this album. Seconds later the piece detonates courtesy of extreme grindcore guitar and drums. One minute into Side Three there's a delightful jungle jazz, and five minute into it there's some Dononov-ian acoustic guitar leading into a Caribbean-jazz dance. Volume 2 is not any better. Ten minutes into Side One there's great unfinished pop song. Three minutes into Side Two there's some disturbing cosmic music Seven minutes and a half into Side Three we get a laid-back elegy that sets the tone for the surreal, quasi psychedelic 16th minute. For the most part, listening to these tapes is a rather tedious experience.

Then came the mixtape Absence of Shitperson (2014), containing 18 short instrumentals.

The project was not retired after all, as Lil Ugly Mane returned with a proper mini-album, The Weeping Worm (2014), one of the best manifestations of his artistic program. The dense and lugubrious atmospheres Lights Down Low, the sophisticated delivery of Underwater Tank and especially the alien glitch-hop of Hideous Disfigurements mark a significant improvement over the first album. Likewise, the nine-minute Passion Sceptre/ Dert Mystery ranks as one of his most explosive rants (unfortunately ruined by a lame second part).

Oblivion Access (Ormolycka, 2015), obsessed with themes of suicide and death, is hardly a hip-hop record, certainly not a dance-oriented one. His musical skills are best exhibited in the overture of musique concrete, Ejaculated Poison Wrench, and especially in the instrumental Leonards Lake, which stages the unlikely marriage of vintage barbershop vocal harmony and robotic glitch-hop. As he becomes a more skilled musician, the beat is the loser: Columns has words and strings but little beats; and Grave Within A Grave has harrowing words (and a psychedelic-like chant in the middle) but only slow sterile beats. Opposite Lanes opens with ghostly noises and a gamelan-like gong, and, when the rap begins and the drum-machine kicks in, there are still eccentric sounds in the background. Initially, Collapse And Appear explores a lightly populated soundscape and then the echoed, dub-like rap has to fight for attention in a forest of sound effects (unfortunately, the piece is ruined by the spoken-word coda). Drain Counter has the languid pace of a Burt Bacharach ballad and the backing of a jazz trumpet and of angelic vocals, and the beat is almost forgotten. The brief surreal instrumentals Warmest Flag and Compliance are just intermezzos, but the same techniques can be used with powerful results in a song like Intent And Purulent Discharge, whose aggressive main voice is echoed by a distorted one over a gloomy industrial beat.

Third Side Of Tape (2015) is a two-hour monolith of precisely the kind of debris (a compilation of 15 years of leftovers) that Miller should avoid on the way to becoming a major composer. Nonetheless, one can hear the more mature composer in bits of this new mess, compared with the first two compilations: the industrial music two minutes into Side One - A (19:16), the cosmic jam that begins at 15:15; the disco music unleashed seven minutes into Side One - B (25:59) and the hysterical punk-rock at 17:37; the feverish tapping seven minutes into Side Two - B (24:27) and then the apocalyptic black-metal 13 minutes into it; the anthemic garage-rock eleven minutes into Side Three - A (18:44) and the comic chipmunk synth-pop that follows it; the whipping catchy techno three minutes into Side Three - B (23:47) and the manic distortion eight minutes into it. Unfortunately, the price to pay in order to appreciate these bits of genius is gigantic: more than one hour of garbage.

The prolific Miller impersonated many more musicians than just Lil Ugly Mane. Seidhr released the album Majesty of Disease (2005). Across released the EPs Waiting in a Hole (2007), Vorare (2009) and Live Songs (2014). Rats released the EP Stem Loss Beg (2008). Confident People released the EP Three Songs (2010). Cat Torso released the EP Fuck Strangler (2009). Public Garden released the EP There for Him (2010). Dale Kruegler released the EP Funky Lady Spa (2011). Shawn Kemp released the EPs Softwehr (2011), I Thought I Lost You (2011) and External Files (2012). A9Concuss released the EP A9Concuss (2012). Dale Kruegler & the Missing Felicitys released the album Thug Isolation (2012). Vudmurk released the EP Sleep Until It Hurts You (2013). Lordmaster DJ S.K. the Subterranean Suspect released the album Cold Rock Sex Bug (2015). Shawn Kemp produced and played woodwind instruments on Secret Circle's single Keep It Low/ Satellite (2017), a collaboration with rappers Antonio "Antwon" Williams and Patrick "Wiki" Morales. Bedwetter released the nine-song mini-album Flick Your Tongue Against Your Teeth and Describe the Present (2017), notable mainly for the surreal vignette Fondly Eulogizing Sleep, the lethargic Square Movement, and the psychedelic Haze Of Interference. And so on.

Miller changed name to Bedwetter for Flick Your Tongue Against Your Teeth and Describe the Present (2017), one of the bleakest hip-hop albums ever. He also formed Secret Circle with Antwon and Wiki.

The 19-song Volcanic Bird Enemy and The Voiced Concern (2021), Travis Miller's first full-length album released under the Lil Ugly Mane name since 2015, is not hip-hop music at all: at best, it is a set of rambling introspective monologues set to lo-fi psych-rock with a touch of synthesize and drum-machine. After the hypnotic sound collage of Bird Enemy Car and the equally surreal With Iron & Bleach & Accidents (a carillon a` la Penguin Cafè Orchestra), the first real song, the Beck-esque Benadryl Submarine, begins the litany of depressing drug stories and sets the tone for the rest of the album. Despite the theme of the lyrics, the musical journey is graceful and even amusing, from the smoothly jazzy Cold in Here to the vaudeville-esque Styrofoam, which simulates a 1920s dixieland dance tune (with even the crackling of a vintage record), from the sci-fi exotica of Hostage Master to the shoegazing-pop of Discard, from the poppy and castrated drum'n'bass of VPN to the cartoonish singalong Cursor (a campfire version of the Tremeloes), from the abrasive psychedelic rave-up of Headboard (originally a Bedwetter song of 2020) to the hard-rocking street fanfare of Porcelain Slightly. And finally there's the album's standout, the frenzied electronic boogie of Broken Ladder (subtly infected by country guitars and orchestral strings). The procession is also blessed with two charming absurdist instrumentals: Beach Harness (circus trip-hop?) and Swell (a meeting of industrial music and Angelo Badalamenti). The arrangements are consistently mind-boggling. A handful of songs are musically uneventful but they serve a purpose too, like the spectral recitation of Clapping Seal that ends in silence, reminding us that this is not meant to be a party. Rarely has such a depressed songwriter made such uplifting music.

Singles (2023) gathers eight singles that Lil Ugly Mane released in 2022. After the gentle instrumental shuffle Replica Fireplace, these songs abandon the psychedelic overtones of the previous album in favor of slimmer productions relying on acoustic guitar and piano. What stands out is the variety, each song being completely different from the others. The rocking Easy Prey even imitates Seattle grunge of the 1990s (Nirvana and the likes).

(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )