Album Review: “Anything But Words”

Banks and Steelz is best described as an exemplification of cross-genre collaboration. The duo, composed of famed Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA and Interpol vocalist Paul Banks, recently debuted its first album, “Anything But Words.” A complex blend of alternative rock and rap, the project has a distinctly experimental feel and features myriad musical guests and styles.

The album starts off strong with “Giant,” a piece that lends itself to the beautiful softness of Banks’ voice. Though this opener does not feature RZA’s best verse, his vocals are still incredibly impassioned, deftly weaving through a personal narrative. Melding a strong beat, skilled drumming and a cascading techno sound, “Giant” may not be the most cohesive single, but it is an exciting start. Its kinetic, surrealist video is as fun to watch as the track is to listen to.

“Wild Season” is one of the album’s standouts, featuring the stunning vocals of folk-rock icon Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence and the Machine. This song smoothly fuses elements of rap and rock, as Welch and Banks harmonize effortlessly in its chorus while RZA delivers some of his most refined and captivating raps on the album.

Released as a single prior to the album’s release, “Love and War” received significant media attention for the appearance of RZA’s former bandmate, Wu-Tang rapper Ghostface Killah. The track incorporates a variety of effects and instruments, even melancholic Latin-flavored trumpeting, to produce a nearly cinematic sound.

“Love and War” is one of the most lyrically powerful tracks as well, delving deeply into the theme of toxic, unconditional love: “She let my love spill/ Out on the floor the love changed the war/ Both trying to win trying to claim the law/ Infatuation morphed to fabrication.” Like “Giant,” “Love and War” boasts an impressive, albeit occasionally grisly video as Banks and RZA appear as a pair of hired guns amid a Quentin Tarantino-inspired Yakuza torture scene.

The album’s titular single “Anything But Words” and the catchy “Ana Electronic” are other standouts in Banks and RZA’s repertoire. However, there are a few low notes on this album, including “Can’t Hardly Feel.” Unlike most other songs on the album, it has a rather hollow and unoriginal sound that lacks excitement or tension. The song could have been far stronger with a few added vocal or instrumental techniques, but Banks and RZA failed to deliver.

Though mainstream popularization of the rap-rock fusion genre is minimal — most notably Kanye West and Chris Martin’s softer 2007 hit “Homecoming” — Banks and RZA make strides in making it more successful. Unlike some of their counterparts, who take the kitschy “heavy metal meets hard rap” route, Banks and RZA rely on a subtler, whimsical approach. Their work more closely resembles the sample-heavy collaboration between Benny Cassette and Ghostface Killah — entitled “Milk Em” — coupled with the refreshing balance of emerging rap-rock artist Shane Eli.

After their final American appearance in Arizona this weekend, Banks and RZA will tour throughout Europe for the remainder of the year, hitting a selection of edgy concert venues and cultural showcases. While this album marks the duo’s entry into the rap-rock world, its performances are already highly anticipated, with both artists having amassed large fan bases through their work in Interpol and the Wu-Tang Clan.

“Anything But Words” is an album five years in the making, with the earliest demos made in 2011 and recording beginning in 2013. Thankfully, its deeply layered and reworked sound is worth the wait. Though still refining their direction, Banks and RZA have found their footing in the unexpectedly melodious collaboration of two very different genres. Retaining the trademark independent qualities of both Banks’ and RZA’s music, “Anything But Words” is original, expressive and just the right amount of loud.

Singles on the album share some instrumental elements, but are still distinctively produced without too much intertrack blend. The album’s lyrical message is remarkably multifaceted, touching on love, conflict and even oppression, which effectively pulls together the high-energy release. Having been so widely established within their own genres, Banks and RZA are likely to find success in their new venture, already showing promise and ingenue with this album.


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