Let the 20-years-since-Endtroducing… retrospectives roll out—as far as Josh Davis is concerned, he’s long since torn off his rearview mirror. If it means the fanbase that first discovered his MPC Bitches Brew prowess in ’96 still fiends for a return to that inimitable style, so be it; DJ Shadow will be damned if the hip-hop world he grew up in moves on without him. Sometimes he’s gone far afield—his notorious turn towards hyphy on 2006’s The Outsider and omnidirectional metal/indie/EDM feints on 2011’s The Less You Know, the Better—but his mistakes, such as they are, remain his own; they don’t come from boredom or laziness, but curiosity and adventure.
The Mountain Will Fall comes nearly five years after The Less You Know…, and if time is the most obvious thing separating these two albums, Shadow’s emergence out of the dusty vinyl catacombs to engage more deeply with contemporary alt-beats runs a close second. The album grew out of a prodigal-son-returns DJ gig for Los Angeles’s Low End Theory series, the same turf where instrumental hip-hop heirs like Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer went fully cosmic. And what Shadow took away from this rejuvenation wasn’t a renewed urge to lay down more door-kicking breaks—it’s a sense of nuance and distance, Ableton-manipulated live instruments given room to breathe and unfurl amidst the chopped-up but often sparse beats.
Case in point: “Nobody Speak” features Run the Jewels threatening their customary beatings to assorted wild animals and members of your family, but its skulking boom-bap simmer is twangy, playful, and slyly casual compared to El-P’s usual production slate of intense hydraulic-press low-end. And DJ Shadow gets better the subtler he is, letting the negative space breathe through dubby reverb elsewhere to stunning effect. The glitchy, gliding burble of the Nils Frahm teamup “Bergschrund,” the spiritual-jazz haze of “Ashes to Oceans” (featuring a misty waterfront noir trumpet from Manchester’s Matthew Halsall) and the Daedalus-via-Broadcast eeriness of “Pitter Patter” (a collab with Bleep Bloop and Nite School Klik partner G. Jones, signees to Shadow’s label Liquid Amber) reveal Shadow’s best impulses these days lie not in massive drums and aggro riffs but in the haunting, wistful ear for melody that’s laced his best tracks from the start.