Hip Hop collective The Fraternity comes together for ‘Dark Arts of the Iron Age’

Cincinnati’s Sleep helps guide locally-launched/nationally-connected online supergroup on its first collaborative album

click to enlarge The Fraternity's 'Dark Arts of the Iron Age' - Photo: sleep513.bandcamp.com
Photo: sleep513.bandcamp.com
The Fraternity's 'Dark Arts of the Iron Age'
Three years ago, Cincinnati Hip Hop artist Jeremy Spencer, a teaching student and budding novelist with a healthy catalog of mixtapes and conceptual solo albums under his Sleep performance identity, reached out to a number of like-minded artists and producers online. The resultant collaborative internet collective dubbed itself The Fraternity and began assisting each other in their individual projects; Sleep benefitted from Fraternity involvement on his Definition of Insanity EP and his homage to '90s Hip Hop, The H.W. Bush/Clinton Era, both out in 2015, as well as 2016's All Men Must Die...but you first.

After three years of featuring on each other's work, The Fraternity has finally pooled its resources to collaborate on a single release under the collective's banner. Like the overwhelming majority of Sleep's catalog, Dark Arts of the Iron Age is a concept album that weaves a tale connecting the titular Middle Ages period with conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, ancient aliens, Game of Thrones, Area 51 and contemporary snapshots of urban violence and retribution, all of it accompanied by a dark, dense soundtrack that nods to old school '90s Rap. It's not mere hyperbole that The Fraternity has been called the new Wu Tang Clan.

The Fraternity sets itself apart from standard Hip Hop presentation right up front with the cover art for Dark Arts of the Iron Age, a Frank Frazetta-via-Tintoretto depiction of the murderous brutality of the Middle Ages stylized into a contemporary allegory for Hip Hop's meanest streets — all of the knife-wielding assailants are masked. Given its period authenticity and sword-and-sorcery imagery, the artwork is something one might expect to be on the cover of a Metal album, which makes for a fascinating dichotomy that definitely alerts the listener that they're entering into uncharted Hip Hop territory.

Perhaps the most prevalent characteristic of Dark Arts of the Iron Age is its incredible musicality. Sleep's extensive catalog is rife with material that engages the listener musically as well as lyrically, so it comes as little surprise that he features on 11 of the album's 15 tracks. Make no mistake, though, the album is clearly the work of the collective, individual talents contributing to the over-arcing theme of the whole. Even more surprising is the fact that almost none of the participants have actually met one another; Dark Arts of the Iron Age is an amazingly cohesive album that was assembled piecemeal by individuals — including Jus Ra, Cain, X, Medina, Loose Logic, S.H.A.D.O.W., Chi-Money, Frank Knight, Speciez and Leo Bishop — who live in at least seven different states and who provided raw vocals based on Sleep's supplied beats, which were then hammered into shape by Mike Tombs at True Sounds Studio.

Sleep's beats are obviously crucial to the proceedings, deep throbbing pulses that set the somber '90s tone, but it's the musical diversity that ultimately pushes Dark Arts to the highest possible level. The album's opening track, "The Arrival," begins with a swirling wind over distant police sirens, symphonically Ambient piano, a quickly hit-and-held toke and ominous backward vocals that sound like a black mass incantation, followed by Jus Ra, Cain and Sleep swearing fealty to The Fraternity and citing contemporary historical and fictional gospel. "Plague" is as bleak as the modern-day Middle Ages it documents, while "Burn at the Steak" is the first appearance of the fierce and confrontational spitting of Loose Logic and X. Medina — every time they pop up in a track's credits, it's the equivalent of pissing on a downed power line.

At every turn, Sleep and The Fraternity balance virulent lyrics with an appropriate and yet unexpected musical soundtrack. "Crewcify" offers lines about — and with the speed and force of — automatic weapons over a simple and effective two-note piano accompaniment, while "Conjure" spits out streetwise stream of consciousness observations threaded into an atmospheric horror-movie motif that could have been an outtake from a Gravediggaz session in the late ’90s. "Kill the King" talks royal urban revolution with a dense wash of golden-age Hip Hop musical classicism, those unmistakable heart-pounding beats and occasional stings of Curtis Mayfield-inspired guitar wails. And "Lady of the Lake" is Hip Hop/Pop at it's finest, with a melodic and melancholy harpsichord riff reminiscent of ’60s era Baroque Pop powering a visceral ode to lost love of a sort.

Two years ago, speaking about his just-released The H.W. Bush/Clinton Era, Sleep made this pithy comment: "It's one thing to be a good lyricist, but if the music doesn't sound good, it's not really going to matter. It's not going to stick with the listener." Dark Arts of the Iron Age will not only stick with the listener, it will inspire and perhaps even force additional spins to take in the full breadth of its thematic narrative and expansive sonic vision.

Click below to purchase/stream Dark Arts of the Iron Age and HERE to check out for more from Sleep’s impressive discography.

Music video for Dark Arts track "Conjure," featuring Sleep, Jus Ra, Loose Logic, Cain, Frank Knight, S.H.A.D.O.W and Chi- Money:

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