Distal Vampire Lightning EP
Atlanta beatmaker Michael Rathbun (a.k.a. Distal) burst onto the scene a few years ago, and has basically refused to slow down ever since. Equally capable of club-destroying footwork tracks and hypnagogic remixes (e.g. his recent take on Blackbird Blackbird's "Keep It Up"), his work is not easy to define, which is a large part of why it's often so good. Following his recently released album, Civilization, the Vampire Lightning EP explores instrumental hip-hop territory and delves headfirst into the trap-rap Distal clearly loves. Unfortunately, that's also the EP's biggest weakness; while the tracks on Civilization explored a consistently engaging tornado of genres, much of Vampire Lightning sounds like it's waiting aimlessly for an MC to come along and rap over the tunes.
Without question, Vampire Lightning shares some stylistic DNA with Lunice and Hudson Mohawke's much-lauded TNGHT EP. That said, while both contain similarly brash trap beats and come from versatile producers, TNGHT is clearly obsessed with keeping the listener's energy high, a concern Distal doesn't seem to share. "Cherry Red" rides along on sparse hand claps and clipped vocal samples, with the occasional snare tap added in for good measure. It's enough to get the listener's head nodding, but it's not particularly compelling. That this is a Distal production probably wouldn't be picked up on by anyone who didn't already know. Whereas songs like Civilization's dub-inspired "Rattlesnake" operated at similarly slow tempos, the synths drew from a more interesting sonic palette and the resulting sound was more immersive and engaging. Comparatively, "Cherry Red" feels clinical and slight—like something Distal had chosen to shelve from his last record.
"Green Lantern," on the other hand, is a more successful bid at a similar formula, this time with massive production that's easy to get behind. While things stay fairly static, the track has enough fat for the listener to chew on, with huge snares and a vocal that repeats "thug it like this" ad nauseum. (It's likely that the sample was grabbed from the Lil' Kim's classic "Suck My Dick," but we can't be sure.) Still, the track crawls along like a loris on codeine, so if the listener is expecting to dance, they should look elsewhere. The EP also comes with a remix from MikeQ, who morphs "Green Lantern" into a sparely chopped-up club track. His take is a fun listen—perhaps more so than the original, and further solidifies the New Jersey DJ as an artist on the ascent.
Vampire Lightning's title track is a hectic juke/footwork/who-knows-what blend that's as manic as anything Distal has previously delivered. While some listeners will be happy to hear Distal back in juke mode, the spastic production could be seen as jarring, even in a genre partially defined by its intensity. (There's a reason why the song has "lightning" it its title.) As a standalone, though, the track will no doubt connect with fans looking for another taste of Distal's technical wizardry. Compared to the EP's trap explorations, it's a treat to see Distal's snares back in rapid-fire mode.
Considering Distal's talent and continual evolution, it's probably best to take Vampire Lightning as an uneven diversion, and hold off judgment until his next release. That, or wait for the right MC to turn "Green Lantern" into the banger it sounds capable of becoming.
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