Endtroducing..… will be referenced in about 90 percent of anything written about DJ Shadow until the day he dies — that’s what happens when you singlehandedly alter the course of hip-hop history. Josh Davis’ 1996 debut repurposed aural ghosts and ideas into a masterful astral thicket, and what’s been unfortunate about the 43-year-old producer’s career is how his masterful collages have gradually devolved into flotsam. At worst, his projects became haphazard examples of genre dilettantism: 2006’s hyphy-influenced The Outsider and 2011’s guitar-backed The Less You Know, the Better exemplified how fractured and indistinct DJ Shadow’s vision had become.
The art may have suffered but what’s remained consistent is the pride the man takes in standing apart from the zeitgeist. It’s the source of one of the few (relatively) recent major DJ Shadow news stories: His 2012 set at Miami’s Mansion nightclub was infamously cut short against his wishes because his s**t was “too future.” But for The Mountain Will Fall, even a producer as purportedly forward-thinking as DJ Shadow had to adapt. For him, the increasingly suffocating sampling laws are akin to boxing with handcuffs. With fewer clearance issues to worry about, The Mountain Will Fall marks a shift from cut-and-paste alchemy to his most predominately original production to date, and it also serves as proof that DJ Shadow hasn’t fallen off; he just needs to focus.
What makes The Mountain Will Fall DJ Shadow’s best album since 2002’s The Private Press is how it fixes the fundamental issue that crippled The Outsider and The Less You Know: It’s blessedly coherent. There’s a uniformity created through the crisp drum patterns and the foreboding use of space. The overall glacial tone even causes the album to coagulate a few times too many — the icy stomp of “California” and the glitchy “Bergschrund” strangle the momentum — but at least the rewards aren’t subsumed within the clutter. DJ Shadow’s skeletal style confidently allows highlights to realize themselves. A dusted piano arrives midway through “Three Ralphs,” transforming it from a nihilistic thumper into an apocalyptic waltz, one of the album’s most sublime moments. The exhibitionistic “The Sideshow,” which sweeps in after “Bergschrund,” recalls DJ Shadow’s turntablist roots in a way that feels more listener-inclusive than masturbatory.
Even though Fall’s fraught atmosphere comes from the auteur’s brisk electronic direction, it’s not a DJ Shadow project if it isn’t a multi-genre stew. On “Nobody Speak,” the Spaghetti-western loop works as a competent backdrop for Run the Jewels’ amicably crass prose (“I rob Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty, Linus and Lucy / Put coke in the doobie roll woolies to smoke with Snoopy,” quoth the ever-intrepid Killer Mike). “Ashes to Oceans” delivers free jazz sans the spontaneity, with composer Matthew Halsall assisting in covering the seams.
What’s a bit disconcerting about The Mountain Will Fall is how much of a relief it is to feel like DJ Shadow still has an ear for cohesion after the mournful strums of “Suicide Pact” end the album. This year also marks the comeback of fellow plunderphonic legends the Avalanches. The Australian collective disappeared for 16 years, but their upcoming return has glimpsed the dance-floor whimsy of their still-incredible 2001 debut, Since I Left You, even if these kindred spirits are hampered by the same artistic (and legal) challenges as Shadow in 2016. The Mountain Will Fall is only somewhat transcendent in its quiet moments, and the highs are too few and ephemeral. It’s quaint — a step away from the zeitgeist, but not quite future enough.