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  • The Mountain Will Fall by DJ Shadow
  • Vanessa Chang
The Mountain Will Fall. DJ Shadow. 2016. Mass Appeal Records.

Twenty years ago, Josh Davis, the turntable auteur better known as DJ Shadow, released his first studio album on the independent label Mo' Wax Recordings. Widely acclaimed as a work that both explored and transcended the borders of musical genre, Endtroducing embodied DJ Shadow's philosophy that hip-hop is not a sound but an attitude and process. "The way I make music," he remarked, "is rooted in the hip-hop paradigm and the hip-hop way of thinking, which is: take what's around you, and subvert it into something that is 100-percent you."1 Davis's music emerges from this process of transmutation. Always understanding himself as a DJ first, Shadow's work is inseparable from his love affair with record collecting and boasts a scholar's dedication to music history.

Fueled by his voracious appetite for found sounds and the physical practice of finding rare records known as "digging in the crates," Endtroducing inaugurated Davis's reputation as a collector and tinkerer. An alchemist of sound, DJ Shadow used an Akai MPC60 12-bit sampling machine, a turntable, and a borrowed ProTools rig to collage the myriad samples making up the album. A watershed moment in hip-hop history, for many skeptics, Endtroducing elevated aural assemblage to art. The album has been lauded as a game-changer in instrumental hip-hop, and critics have often placed Davis's ensuing albums in its long shadow. In the decades since its release, Davis has continued to exercise his sense of play in studio albums and remixes, as well as onstage. In his records, as in performance, he has demonstrated a tactile encounter with musical history, from the virtuosic gestural manipulations of his turntable sets and live button-pushing choreographies on his MPC, to his more recent tour with Afrika Bambaataa's record collection, touting these objects as the historic wax from which hip-hop has flowed.

DJ Shadow's fifth studio release, The Mountain Will Fall, sees him leaving the tactility of his MPC and his crate of vinyl for Ableton Live software. While a few samples appear in the album, this record marks Davis's shift toward original production and songwriting. Yet Shadow's experimental ethos as a bricoleur deeply versed in musical history animates this record as much as it did Endtroducing and the rest of his oeuvre. His adventurous and omnivorous patchwork aesthetic, fusing disparate elements into surprising wholes, remains audible. The Mountain Will Fall employs signature Shadow elements, veering from driving beats entangled in rhythmic unorthodoxy to ethereal soundscapes of midnight, stippled at the edge with darkness. The album's quieter moments evoke the dark and pensive moods that have patterned Shadow's career, most notably in the poignant trip-hop and downtempo he lent to the soundtrack of the documentary Dark Days (2000), about an underground homeless community dwelling in a Manhattan train tunnel.

While the influence of contemporary electronic music looms large, the album winks at history. From the rising synth tones that open the album to the video game bleeps and conjured sounds of a record being scratched, Shadow cites sonic reminders of the vintage technologies that launched and sustained his career. When juxtaposed with a slicker digital aesthetic, these anachronisms foster a dizzying temporal play. At the album's best moments, Davis straddles musical past and present with a curious and thoughtful joy. However, while he navigates [End Page 267] this terrain with style at the beginning, his penchant for chopping and tinkering confounds the whole.

"The Mountain Will Fall," the title track, opens with a lushly orchestrated sample from Dario Baldan Bembo's "Prima Alba" (1975). DJ Shadow expertly draws out the soaring soundscape with the undercurrent of a slow marching beat, puncturing floating flutes with intermittent scratching. This swelling aural dream ends on an abrupt cassette tape flip, calling attention to the recording technologies of his earliest days. This initial gambit turns archly to the thumping beats and repeating guitar line of "Nobody Speak," featuring Killer Mike and El-P, the elder statesmen of hip-hop currently...