The word “harrowing” is typically reserved for genres of music with the most violent payoff, be it extreme forms of metal or harsher avant-garde genres like power electronics. But rap duo (if you can call them that) Injury Reserve’s latest album embodies that word through their twisting of familiar sounds past their points of recognition. Where fans of the group are used to experimental production hidden behind traditional song structures, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” has lost all of the band’s accessibility and knack for hooks that made popular tracks like “Jailbreak the Tesla” and “Oh Shit” so memorable.
An impromptu DJ set from their 2019 tour laid the groundwork for this new sound, and it maintains that improvisational feeling. To the untrained ear, it may feel less like traditional music and more like eavesdropping on something you wish you could unhear, like a rare glimpse into a musical womb, a fetal state between feeling and song. Group member and producer Parker Corey’s instrumentals feel cut off from the final steps between sound construction and song assembly. The result is a sound as dizzying as its themes of loss, social upheaval and mental unrest.
But before fans get used to this ground-breaking style and fusion of genres, they have to grapple with the band’s shorter lineup after the death of key member Stepa J. Groggs in 2020, a topic remaining rapper Ritchie with a T is upfront about. However, it doesn’t consume the despondency of the album by itself. As the band states, much of this album was started with Groggs before his passing, and these themes were present on the album before then. They also decided to fully lean into Groggs’ constant insistence to “make some weird shit” in his honor.
So, while Groggs is gone, his voice is present if you know where to look for it, most notably on the lead single “Knees.” Over five minutes, a warped sample of noise rock band Black Midi’s “Sweater” repeatedly crashes into itself. Ritchie and Groggs use this cushion of havoc to rant ramblings between resemblances of a hook, repeating “knees hurt when I grow, and that’s a tough pill to swallow.” Their vocals sound as broken as the instrumental, consumed in the bottles they “keep killing.”
Though the vibe is destructive throughout, its impact ranges from harrowing to haunting. The performers are manic, and many listeners’ attempts to make sense of the music are reflected by the band’s attempts to make sense of their crumbling world. When they’re not trying to find the elephant in the room, as they state in the opener, “Outsider,” they’re already talking to it, from addressing our society’s widespread paranoia on “Wild Wild West,” through allusions to 5G towers, to the self-obsessed aspects of growing up on “Postpostpartum.” It’s most haunting moments are found on “Top Picks For You,” where minimal synth lines paint a backdrop for Ritchie finding Groggs through the algorithms on the technology he left behind: “Grab the remote, pops up something you would’ve watched… your patterns are still in place and your algorithm is still in action.”
Every theme explored carries the weight of being dropped into the middle of a conversation between the band and the elephants themselves, grabbing them by their tusks and staring into their eyes. As it is often said, “the first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have one.” Injury Reserve shows us the fixing before showing us the problem. After all of this one-sided discussion, the haunting closer, “Bye Storm,” comes to an anticlimactic conclusion that has as much impact as everything that came before: “it rains, it pours, but, damn, man, it’s really pourin’.”
As the record closes, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” successfully takes listeners into this distressing place and lets us watch from a close distance as they toss these ideas around, pleading for their meaning. These questions barely find answers, but the uncertainty might be the very thing that keeps the record from failing. It beautifully reminds us that the hardest times breed the hardest questions, and sometimes the most logical thing to do is to let them consume you for however long it takes.