Injury Reserve’s hauntingly experimental journey to Phoenix

Injury Reserve’s hauntingly experimental journey to Phoenix

Arizona's Injury Reserve return with a sophomore album, one both a disorienting treatise on getting older and a visionary tribute to the late, great Stepa J. Groggs.

Injury Reserve are true children of the internet. 

They’ve been acknowledging as much since 2016 – “this that raised-by-the-internet, ain’t-had-no-Dad rap,” rapped Ritchie with a T on Floss opener Oh Shit!!! – but their incredibly online outlook is entrenched in their artistic DNA. Hailing from Phoenix, home to a vibrant rock scene, the trio took their emceeing inspiration from afar, idolizing artists like North Carolina’s Little Brother and Virginia’s Pharrell. The web was also where they found fandom: it was the internet that spotlit the Phoenix-based trio’s breakout tape, 2015’s Live from the Dentists’ Office; features from blogs and YouTubers that saw 2016’s Floss take on cult status; and years of online presence that helped make their 2019 self-titled debut such a triumphant arrival. 

In that time, Injury Reserve carved out a striking two-part identity: they were purveyors of jazz-rap, enamoured by horns, keys, and clean loops, but they were also fiercely experimental, pushing their sound in an increasingly bold, punkish direction. Injury Reserve opens with the disorienting one-two of Koruna & Lime and Jawbreaker but resolves with the tender Three Man Weave, a gorgeous reflection effortlessly laced atop one of their most soulful instrumentals.

A salute to the influence of Phonte, Three Man Weave is an overdue celebration, hailing the paths that led Ritchie, Groggs and Parker to their ultimate calling. They’re running lyrical drills with ease, bouncing off one another with well-heeled chemistry, a tight unit at the top of their game. The pinnacle was to be short-lived: Stepa J. Groggs, father, artist and elder statesman of the group, died last June aged 32.

By the Time I Get to Phoenix, the group’s new sophomore record, arrives 15 months after that tragic loss. The fluid motion of the weave is gone – what once was sanded is now serrated, Parker’s tortured production folding in with Ritchie’s eerie, nigh-apocalyptic bars. It doesn’t so much furnish as it clashes against them, wrestling the cadences and sowing discord amongst the melodies. The album art, a hazy silhouette caught before a metropolitan sprawl, is soaked in an uneasy red. It’s a foreboding image, the rough glow like that which bounces off a towering fire front as it rapidly gains ground. That’s just what By the Time I Get to Phoenix sounds like: panic, fear, uncertainty, grief, and a little humour, too.

Outside, a sprawling six minutes of threats, grievances and ultimatums, feels something like chasing the white rabbit to the seventh circle. Ritchie comes in confrontational, “a little too sharp” by his own sarcastic admission. “Let me tell you something,” he stutters, “I been talkin' to 'em kindly.” When he asks to “cut all that bullshit,” Ritchie’s not brokering a deal – the closet’s open, the skeletons are airing out, and soon enough, the past is lining chalk about your flagging body. That which we’ve hidden eventually comes around, those consequences taking on a divine quality amongst Parker’s warbling production. “We cannot end this with an agree to disagree,” strains Ritchie as bated breaths bounce through the mix, “there is no happy medium.”

It’s coarser, looser, more antagonistic in tone and tenor. In their own telling, that shapelessness comes courtesy of a strange tour booking, where a spotlight on improvisation centred their whims in a new way. “While touring Europe in 2019, we had a show in Stockholm that had been booked in the back of an Italian restaurant instead of a typical venue,” the group wrote in a press release. “To match a certain lack of production we pivoted the show into our own improvisatory take on a DJ set and ended up performing a song none of us had heard before, the board recording of which became the grounding for a new album.” 

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The record took “the next few months,” but was largely finished at the time of Groggs’ death – one of his last creative discussions involved the title, a repurposing inspired by Isaac Hayes’ 18-minute rendition of By The Time I Get To Phoenix. It would be too simple to reduce the album to a tunnel-vision tribute, though Groggs’ shadow hangs heavy across the record. These ideas were largely honed alongside the late emcee, and Groggs’ enduring influence steeled their eccentric convictions. “Eventually, we regathered and felt most comfortable finishing this album we had made as it still resonated fully (in some respects even taking on what felt like haunting pre-echoes) and above all else stayed true to his constant insistence while recording to simply ‘make some weird shit’.” 

In one sense, By the Time I Get to Phoenix the natural endpoint of the group’s patient slide into abrasive experimentalism, but in another, it’s a startling leap, taking those glowing creative embers and stoking them with wild abandon. When Ritchie raps “I'd rather burn at the stake than boil in a pot” on Postpostpartum, he might as well be talking shop – after a half-decade of amiable escalation, Injury Reserve have thrown their weight behind the most jarring elements of their sound. 

The powerful drums, mired deep in the mix, come courtesy of black midi drummer Morgan Simpson. It’s hardly surprising, seeing how the Speedy Wunderground revue – which includes emerging UK rock outfits black midi, Black Country, New Road, and Squid – have proved a profound influence on Injury Reserve. English duo Jockstrap, vendors of strange electronica, opened for the group on their UK tour in November 2020; one-half of that group, vocalist Georgia Ellery, is a violinist for black midi. The outfits bonded during their stretch, and Groggs recorded a verse for Jockstrap’s 2020 single, Robert. It was the last he saw released.

Superman That, built atop a fragment of Black Country, New Road’s Athens, France, is rap-rock by invocation only – from the ringing guitars, Parker builds an anxious slice of glitch-hop. Ritchie’s autotuned croon spells doom, the repeated refrain a resigned mantra: “ain't no savin' me, ain't no savin' me or you.” Though SS San Francisco, featuring Bruiser Brigade emcee Zelooperz, takes a sluggish industrial turn, it’s just as focused on the negatives — “don’t,” “can’t,” “won’t” and “ain’t” litter Ritchie’s verses, both resistant and fatalistic. 

Arrangements rattle and groan, disembodied voices wrestling about behind Ritchie on Smoke Don’t Clear and Groggs on Footwork in a Forest Fire. There’s a claustrophobia to the hushed asides, especially when taken alongside the disorienting drum patterns. Whispers, moans, metallic crashes — the musical approximation of being trapped. “There's panic in the sky / Even when it's down below,” warns Groggs.

Footwork is a frantic post-rap banger, dull notes and barrelling percussion ratcheting tension. Groggs folds allusions to police brutality into the all-pervading sense of dread, bringing patterns and undercurrents to the immediate forefront. “They tryna take my life and they take my rights,” he rhymes with a barbed tongue, warning that though “there's nowhere to go, you better run and hide, take yo' ass inside.” It’s well in keeping with the mission statement: Injury Reserve have been talking to us kindly, but now they’re busting it all open, and the consequences of our shameful skeletons are tearing the world apart. 

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When these threats aren’t doused in heaving bass and glitchy beats, they’re the quieter sort, insidious and deeply personal. The beating heart comes on Top Picks for You, that cold title adorning the most poignant moment of reflection. “As the dust settles, shake it off of me,” opens Ritchie, the mournful siren that wails behind him a more sedentary sound. It’s the small moments of his day-to-day that call the loss to mind – the patterns persist in the machine, whether that’s streaming recommendations, social media ads, or the shadowy spectre that stands across the room. It all comes together in of the records’ most powerful moments: 

Grab the remote, pops up something you would've watched, I'm like ‘classic’
This some shit I would'a seen you watch and then just laughed at
Your patterns are still in place and your algorithm is still in action
Just workin' so that you can just, jump right back in
But you ain't jumpin' back here…

It’s a heart-rending moment of lucidity, and when Groggs returns on the very next track, those lingering patterns feel starker still. Wild Wild West, where Ritchie and Groggs lay paranoia bars over a Shellac sample. Their new-age flex sees them claiming the purported powers of 5G, the instrumental as haphazard and skittish as any indignant echo chamber. “It's the wild, wild west out here / I'm Willie Smith, the inspector gadget” jokes Ritchie, the strapped sheriff of toxic boards and furious forums. It’s a threat for those increasingly radical denizens, the actual arrival of some fabricated fear. “I'm on that 5G, one click let 'em have it” is hilarious, sure, but only because we know it’s absurd — in certain circles, that makes Ritchie an existential threat. 

The verses feel most traditional on Postpostpartum, which ambles through a freewheeling introduction before launching into Ritchie’s familiar set-up: “yo, check it!” It’s the only time he invokes his signature ad-lib across the whole record, rallying against the copycats and clones that flip his style for a profit he’s yet to see. It’s a moment of maturity – Ritchie compares those facsimiles to his sons – but that age comes to a head on Knees, a standout single that strains against the onslaught of age.

Arriving in the moments before the meditative epilogue, Knees feels more whole in context, chasing cagey conversations, vivid doomsaying, smokey flexes, and acute anguish. A concern with falling “out of the loop” — who hasn’t worried about growing out of touch — collides with the fear that there’s no more growing left; that this might well be it. One of Groggs’ most prominent verses sees him tackling addiction with his signature blend of humour and heft. “Well fuck it n***a, at least my dreads grew,” he quips, mere seconds after scrapping against the shackles of alcoholism. 

In the striking music video, a towel sits draped atop his mic, Ritchie and Parker sitting back as the lights blare with the jarring beat. The loss is painfully acute, a lonely towel-draped mic denoting that missing third. The remaining two shirk their marks and eschew performance, their signature eccentricity — see Jailbreak the Tesla or Oh Shit!!! — all but extinguished. A single angle, an uninterrupted scene, a five-minute film depicting something that isn’t even there.

It’s hard to go on at the best of times, and these sure ain’t them. Ankles are straining, pain is accruing, and things thought certain have been undone. By the Time I Get to Phoenix is a youthful record on growing old; a document of grief, hardship and internet-age angst. Injury Reserve have never shied away from the trials — North Pole, or Best Spot In The House, or What A Year It’s Been — but never before have they felt more imposing. 

There’s solace in the close, even if it’s not a conclusion. “The show must go on, the show must go,” muses Ritchie, flagging as he goes, “man, show must go on, said I don't know...

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