- In an interview announcing his new album, Josh Davis called its predecessor, 2011's The Less You Know, The Better, a "parting gift" for fans who still held onto the sample-based sound he perfected on Endtroducing..... 20 years later, The Mountain Will Fall (and the Liquid Amber EP before it) marks the start of a new era for DJ Shadow, who now uses Ableton Live more than MPCs and tours on the dance music festival circuit. Liquid Amber was a rocky start, gesturing towards big-room EDM over the nuance of Davis's best work. And while The Mountain Will Fall doesn't slide into maximalism, it's equally disappointing. On his fifth album, Davis sounds confused, uninspired and, sometimes, out of his depth.
The record begins well enough. The opening title track samples Dario Baldan Bembo's orchestral "Prima Alba," giving it a boom-bap makeover that's satisfying if not predictable. (The crunch of the drums hints towards Davis's love of LA's Low End Theory crew.) Things unravel from there. Trap-influenced tunes like the spaghetti western-inspired "Suicide Pact," the half-assed EPROM rip "Ghost Town" and the all-around awful "Three Ralphs" sound like Davis is trying to fit into a trend he doesn't fully understand. The drums on "Three Ralphs" don't work: the hi-hats hit haphazardly and an ill-timed vocal sample only adds to the chaotic atmosphere. It's a misfire that kills The Mountain Will Fall's momentum early on. Only the elegiac outro, which calls back to Endtroducing....., reminds us of what we know Davis is capable of.
Despite what Davis said, traces of his past work remain in The Mountain Will Fall, for better and worse. Highlight "Ashes To Oceans," a collaboration with trumpeter Matthew Halsall, is a slice of melodrama that plays to Davis's strengths—specifically, his ability to make electronic instrumentation sound poignant and evocative. "California" is somewhere in between, like an Endtroducing..... spinoff made with 2016 production values. Depending on your perspective, it's either a welcome dip into the kind of downtempo that Davis does best or a mawkish nostalgia trip with a lack of self-awareness. Then there's "The Sideshow," an old-school track so stale (Ernie Fresh's rap included) that the drum breaks feel like they might crumble.
Davis teams up with Nils Frahm on "Bergschrund," a partnership that could have set off fireworks if executed properly. But "Bergschrund" sounds like a half-finished Frahm piece that Davis sprinkled some snares on. Never anything more than the sum of its parts, it's an unimaginative representation of both artists. Davis works with young talents G Jones and Bleep Bloop on what sounds like a Lana Del Rey demo ("Pitter Patter"), and, more intriguingly, with Run The Jewels on "Nobody Speak." Davis working with El-P and Killer Mike could have been the album's crown jewel. All three artists go back to the '90s, and have a deep relationship with rap music, but this is maybe where the track goes wrong. Davis's warbly instruments sound anemic, while El-P and Killer Mike are on autopilot, lacking the ferocity heard on their own records.
What's striking about The Mountain Will Fall is how similar it sounds to post-Private Press DJ Shadow. Sure, some of the sounds and touchstones have changed, but the approach has been the same since 2006's The Outsider: vaguely glossy trip-hop and downtempo that feels out of touch and anonymous. Some of Davis's early records still sound exciting because of the raw talent and vision behind them, and because of the way he stitched together the threads of old songs into captivating new ones. Now, his music sounds bland, as if it was designed for chillout compilations or cocktail lounges. Maybe the problem isn't that he can't escape the success of Endtroducing....., but that he doesn't look back to its genius to figure out how to move forward.
01. The Mountain Will Fall
02. Nobody Speak feat. Run The Jewels
03. Three Ralphs
04. Bergschrund feat. Nils Frahm
05. The Sideshow feat. Ernie Fresh
06. Depth Charge
08. Ashes To Oceans feat. Matthew Halsall
09. Pitter Patter feat. G Jones & Bleep Bloop
11. Ghost Town
12. Suicide Pact