Xero God Releases Groundbreaking Self-Titled Project
Xero God is hands-down the most exciting new music I’ve heard this year. The duo, comprised of electronic musician Panther God and hip-hop prodigy Musashi Xero, have created the freshest sound since I can’t even remember. Their self-titled debut album, which releases on Circuitree Records on October 27, is a journey through the mind of the antihero Xero God. It’s also an exploration of the possibilities and pitfalls of reaching for the transcendent.
Xero God would not be possible without the truly formidable talents of these two creative minds, who have joined forces to create this album. Panther God (Paul Gaeta) was raised up in the Miami hip-hop/electronic scene. His vast knowledge of the genre combined with his ability to make cerebral, creative beats has always made him one of the biggest players on the local circuit, and it’s also taken him to the national and even global level. He’s played alongside Daedelus, Prefuse 73, Bonobo, and Machinedrum. His last LP, 2014’s Golden Changes (Outside Recordings) showcases his penchant for experimental creativity. He’s a master of samples and a fantastic composer in his own right, and his style simultaneously invokes jazz, hip hop, and the remarkably nostalgic synth beats from your favorite 80s video games.
Musashi Xero constantly amazes me with his ability to drop the most poetic, illest rhymes I’ve heard in Asheville (and beyond). If you give this man anything resembling a beat, he will write lyrics to it. His fertile imagination and his incredible songwriting ability mean that he is truly a creative juggernaut behind the mic. His last EP, Underground Kill Wave, was a smooth, beats-heavy record that invited repeated listening and featured collaborations with national beat-makers. His voice is resonant with a wisdom beyond his twenty-odd years, and he brings this richness to his animated performances.
As Xero God, these two create music that is already shifting established paradigms of genre and sound. The unification of these two bright lights creates something even more luminous, a record that is as much of the space age as it is of the old school, as airy as it is grounded. It’s an exceptional outcome for these musicians, who started working on it just over a year ago. When these guys work together, there’s an automatic flow of creativity that results in invention and beauty. The album also includes guest performances from a few other tremendously talented musicians, including DJ Kutzu and Kevin Carballo.
Xero God opens with “GNRS,” a song that sets the stage for the journey through the rest of the album. Soft notes travel up and back down the scale, dropping into deeper notes that together creates an experience of being lifted and gently falling through a particular chord. Then the beat drops, and Xero’s voice unites with the music: “Ghosts don’t go down / they just rise up / they just rise up.” It’s the first verse on the record, and it hits home. This album is about the rise after the fall, about the experience that we all have of bottoming out and being lifted by tenacity, plus a little help from the forces of the cosmos. It’s about being unstoppable even when everything seems to be conspiring to halt you in your tracks. “Sometimes I think they want me to be better than I am / live up live up give up / get down on myself / looks like I blew it again without going down on myself / lucky me, stuck between another rock and a hard place. . . .Gory nosebleed sections / man they tryin’ to look down on me / but I still rise up.” The beats stay constant through the song, providing the lyrics a place to land and grounding the music firmly in twilight rhythms of deep jazz.
“Xero God” is the next track. It starts with higher, tinkling sounds, almost like a music box, before Xero’s voice and the bass drop in to bring you down into the beat. Xero’s poetry is both accessible and puzzling. Trying to tease out the meaning of the verses is like trying to open a beautiful puzzle box—it’s just as attractive if you never quite understand it. He rhymes
“Hell hath no fury / no nephilim next to him / go on get that medicine / go on get that medicine”
The words and their meanings are rich, rolling off the tongue and embedding themselves in the imagination. Xero God together access a dream language, both verbal and musical, characterized by flows of the subconscious that create the foundation of the sound. “Senketsu” opens with these dream tones (right after a pretty nightmarish, evil-sounding sample of someone saying “There is no God” repeatedly — unique samples like this one are one of the many strengths of the album. Xero’s wordplay is out in full on this song (“They’re titled like sir/ I’m tidal like waves”) and the verses careen over bouncing rhythms.
“Cufflinks” is a short piece that links “Senketsu” with the next track. It’s dark, dreamy, and slightly unnerving. A clipped, professional man’s voice intones, “You are going to relax,” a phrase which fades out and echoes back in variously mutated forms. The next song, “Taken,” drops into what at first seems to be slightly more muted territory. The vocals and music seem to trade places throughout as one rises to prominence and then drops back, allowing the other to effloresce. The samples here get downright ethereal, as a singer’s distorted voice moves up and down the scale and is echoed by synth chords. It’s a flowing, meditative song that is filled with echoes of rhythms, voices, rhymes, and repetitions. Listening closely to songs like this is an incredibly rewarding experience. Each time I listen, I hear another detail, a layer that I missed on the previous go-round. The complexity is dizzying, but never daunting. Rather, it’s exciting to realize that this record has earned the right to that (nowadays) rarest of things: deep, sustained attention.
“Still” is another jazz-infused track. Saxophone notes come in throughout and create deeper, more rounded edges throughout the song as higher-pitched blips that sound like they’re straight from the arcade bounce around at the top of musical phrases. This song, like so many on the album, circles around the trappings of identity—the desire to make your mark on the world, but also the pitfalls and false successes that you experience when you allow the hungry ego to take over. Xero sings: “Brighter than fluorescent meets lightening. . . In the game of who’s who/ it’s a lose-lose competition.”
One of my favorite tracks, “Choke” starts with saxophone, which wells up over the sounds of nighttime thrumming of insects and Xero’s own voice, which murmurs softly before arcing into a higher register. The sax drops out and the sounds segue into a lilting, repeating sequence of notes that cascades like a waterfall during the chorus, when Xero rhymes:
“‘cuz I sleep
and I drift
and I hope
and I die
cuz I choke”
“I found youth but no fountain,” he goes on, and we too understand the destructive impulses and false optimism that so often come along with being young. It’s powerful stuff.
A short interlude, “Out the Tomb,” is brief but powerful. “I’m comin’ out my tomb,” whispers Xero. It’s a promise of a powerful resurrection that can happen at any moment of life, when you shake off inertia and see, for the first time, the path in front of you. “Holy Man” seems like the only song that could follow this track, redolent as it is with religious allusion. But in Xero God’s world, holiness is itself something irreverent. It’s the dance of the Holy Fool rather than the hierophant, celebrating the importance of revelry alongside ritual. But within this is also deep wisdom, and the reluctant recognition that time passes despite our best efforts:
Eviscerated I’m a holy man/ Xero God trippin’ in the holy land/ I’m infectious, you don’t wanna hold my hand/ Emaciated, grown holy, damn.
The final track, “Kill Pack,” is also the album’s first single. It starts with a sound clip from anime, a mysterious discussion of an “ultimate weapon” that fades out into the song. I can see why this was the first single, because it really gets at what Xero God is up to in terms of the versatility and creativity of their sound. Filled with beats that fire like synapses, it’s yet another song that gives more with each listen. There’s so much going on here, and it comes together as a completely mesmerizing whole. It’s clear from this and all the other songs that the instrumental piece and the vocals would, if separated, still stand on their own as complete works that would be amazing in their own right. But when these forces join together they’re rocketed to a whole new level. The song—and the album—fade out as Xero continues to rap, his voice growing more distant until it is no longer audible. We get the sense that he has so much more to say, but the inevitable end (for now) has come. At this point, a beautiful guitar coda that echoes the instrumental and vocal portions of the song comes in. This coda, played by Asheville musician Kevin Carballo, is simple, melodic, and breathtaking. It ties the whole album together and draws it to a close, but with the promise of return. It’s perfect.
Xero God’s official release date is Tuesday, October 27. It’s available to preview and purchase through Bandcamp. And if you’re fortunate enough to catch one of their fantastic live shows, you can pick up your copy (or a few extras) then. Be on the lookout for my interview with them, heading your way in a few days.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m more excited about this record than I have been about any other album in a long time. Do yourself a favor and see what Xero God is up to.