July 13, 2009

Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein (May 15, 2001)

I've had the debut (and to date, only) album from New York rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, who did business as Cannibal Ox (alongside their usual deejay, DJ Cip One), sitting in my pile for quite a few months now. I've played with the idea of reviewing it before, but in typical Max fashion, I grew quite lazy, and I moved over to other shit. The Cold Vein was in heavy shuffle rotation on my iPod, though, and its tracks would periodically come up at the oddest times (I had written in the past that "Stress Rap" was one of my favorite tracks of that moment: this is why), so I knew that I couldn't let it slide for much longer. Also, one of the Reader Reviews that I received a few months ago was for this very album, so now is as good a time as any to move forward. (You should also be seeing a Reader Review for The Cold Vein coming up very very soon.)

I'm not going to lie and pretend that I know a hell of a lot about Vast Aire and Vordul Mega as artists, people, or humanitarians. All I know is that the duo hasn't recorded a group album since The Cold Vein (although they have occasionally worked together), a point of contention between the underground hip hop community and Cannibal Ox themselves, but if a group absolutely had to leave at the very top of their game, one could do a lot worse than The Cold Vein.

The Cold Vein was the first full-length project to be released on former Company Flow member El-P's record label, Definitive Jux. El-Producto also fully produced the album, and the consistency of his work, which oftentimes cribbed from several musical genres as well as science fiction concepts and movements and measures normally seen within the context of classical music, combined with the rhyming abilities of Vordul Mega and Vast Aire, led The Cold Vein into the wonderful world of critical acclaim. The disc didn't sell many copies upon its initial release (which isn't that much of a shock), but it has slowly grown into an undeniable cult classic. To date, many of this album's fans consider this to be the finest project that ever came out of the Definitive Jux label, and they're not very far off.

The Cold Vein is filled with lyrical tales focusing on the life of New York rappers blessed with skill but without the burden of overexposure: the bragging that folks have come to expect from their favorite artists comes out in full force, but the subject matter is more becoming of two men who are struggling to find their footing in a world that is constantly changing around them.

Oh, and there's cursing. Lots of cursing.

After a brief intro that combines equal parts of creepy and interesting, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega introduce themselves to the listening public. While neither can lay claim to the title of best MC, both are good in their own way, and both men are complemented extremely well by El-P's spacey/computer-malfunction-like instrumentation, especially during the moments in which the song takes a weird turn and comes off as an alternate soundtrack to It's A Wonderful Life. A recommendation lies in that statement somewhere. The use of Wall Of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" was also kind of interesting.

Having left their bag of choruses at home, Vast, Vordul, and their producer opt to rip shit anyway, rhyming about absolute randomness over an intermittent backdrop. El-P kicks things off and quickly leaves, while Vordul Mega ties the room together at the end.

Listeners that choose not to pay attention will be forced to notice, at this point, that El-P has produced the shit out of The Cold Vein, as this sounds like nothing else in the hip hop world. It's almost as if you can't not do anything creative when you listen to these beats: I recall many folks back in the day name-dropping The Cold Vein as perfect music to write to (a statement which I apparently agree with, since I'm writing as I hear this). The four artists presented here (two of whom are from a crew that most of my two readers have never heard of) decided that they were inspired enough to rhyme, and while they all meant well, the results still come off as really really good. I especially enjoyed how Vordul ends his verse by simply stating the song's title, seemingly apropos of nothing in particular.

Vast Aire's shock-value opening bar grabs your attention (while simultaneously grossing you out), but the song itself truly ascends most of what is considered “real” hip hop once the drums kick in. El-P's instrumental is hauntingly beautiful (no, seriously), providing a perfect companion piece for Vast and Vordul to spit some shit, although it also works well on its own merits, as the rhymes end more than a minute before the actual song.

There's a lot going on with this beat...actually, there's too much going on with this beat, as it fills your mind to capacity, pushing useful knowledge out of your left ear canal. Vast Aire's false start is kind of funny, and the flows of both artists lead me to believe that they would sound exactly the same if they were ever forced to spit to a bounce track from the South.

Nice and peaceful, even if it punches you in the eye with its 1980s keyboards during the “chorus”. Vast and Vordul work so well together that, at this point, you'll never want to hear them apart, regardless of how unrealistic that though is. I mean, they're not attached at the hip, people.

Probably the simplest track on The Cold Vein, although I'm only referring to the beat. (Sometimes, less can be more.) If you weren't convinced that Vast Aire was nice with his awkward flow yet, you'll probably leave this track feeling exactly the same, but I'd be inclined to ask what the fuck your problem is.

I realize this is only because El-P produced this entire album, but it's refreshing to hear how organically every song meshes with one another, while each maintains its separate identity. There aren't many rap songs out there about longing for platonic friends, and certainly none as abstract as this shit (okay, I take that back, there is one other rap song that is as abstract as this shit: RJD2's remix of “The F Word”, readily available on the Interweb), which is so deeply depressing and dark that you will need to reach for your bottle of anti-depressants before the next track. On this (mostly) solo offering, Vast Aire truly impresses.

This song is just fucking magnificent. Vast Aire and Vordul Mega slowly make their way through downtown NYC while a thundercloud filled with piano keys rains upon them, thanks to El-P's previous seeding of said cloud, and neither rapper thought to bring an umbrella. I can't emphasize enough how good this song is. You should probably give it a quick spin before continuing with this write-up. Go ahead, I can wait.

The title alone will probably turn off the readers that listen to the radio religiously, but even though this shit sounds nerdy as hell, there isn't really anything here that isn't accessible to the regular hip hop head. (Vast Aire doesn't rhyme about vikings or twelve-sided die or anything like that. Well, maybe he does if the record is played backward.) The guests play off of their hosts well.

Raise your hand if you expected to read about a Guru (from GangStarr) vocal sample making an appearance on The Cold Vein. Although I'm now left wondering how these two would sound over some vintage DJ Premier boom bap, this track sounds really fucking good, with a polish that comes off as if El-P were actually scoring an independent film and decided to give the music to Vast Aire instead (Vordul Mega was, apparently, on a food run when this track was recorded.)

It's more than a bit unnerving when “Real Earth” abruptly ends, thanks to the creepy “Skynet is taking over”-type sound effects, but listeners are rewarded for their patience with the artists (and El-P) spitting over an elaborately-dressed breakbeat, with entertaining results. El Producto, especially, comes off a lot better than he did earlier on “Ox Out The Cage”. You'll probably freak out when the music stops suddenly before Vast Aire's verse: I did, anyway.

Musically, this song goes off in a direction that is unexpected, but it's still a bit long-winded for my tastes. El-P gets his DJ Shadow on during the last minute, and the results aren't bad, but it's all rather unnecessary.

Since this is supposed to be the final song on The Cold Vein (although it isn't), it makes sense that it's also the most musically ambitious track on here. While the music sounds good, a lot of my two readers will probably become tired of putting in the effort to follow an extended bird metaphor, and may cut the song off prematurely.

The following is considered a bonus track, if only because Cannibal Ox didn't list it on the back of their album.

Overly long, as some bonus tracks tend to be. It's not bad, but, realistically speaking, The Cold Vein has thrown so much stuff at you at this point that this track probably won't even leave a small indentation on your consciousness.

FINAL THOUGHTS: The Cold Vein is that rare underground album that deserves a wider audience, and if more people bothered to listen to it today, it could very well be on the receiving end of a renaissance. Vast Aire and Vordul Mega are highly capable rappers that bridge the gap between Killah Priest and the actual members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Indeed, the fifteen tracks on The Cold Vein are so consistent, you're left wondering how it's possible that Cannibal Ox have yet to release a second album. The (not-so) unsung hero of this disc is producer El-P, however: his production takes this shit to an entirely different plane of existence. The Cold Vein kind of reminds me of DJ Premier's work with Group Home on Livin' Proof (a blasphemous comparison, I know), in that the production envelops the artists so completely that you'll be convinced that Cannibal Ox shouldn't ever work with any other producer again. The difference is that the rappers in Group Home suck monkey scrotum, while Vordul Mega and (especially) Vast Aire are really good.

BUY OR BURN? Not only do I strongly urge you two to buy this shit immediately, I would also recommend picking up El-P's Cannibal Oxtrumentals, since the music on here, even without the vocals, is still really fucking good. Also, if you purchase both albums, El-P will leave you a tweet expressing his gratitude that you just bought two of his albums, helping support Definitive Jux Records, so that's cool.

BEST TRACKS: “Stress Rap”; “A B-Boy's Alpha”; “The F Word”; “Atom”; “Ridiculoid”; “Real Earth”; “Straight Off The D.I.C.”



  1. Great review, i ve been waiting for this a long time... btw, check out the track "Live from the Planet of Eat" from one of Can Ox Mixtapes or Live albums or whatever... fucking great aswell!

  2. *organisms*
    na this is OLD, all this lineup doesn't exist anyone. Emceeing has got much better since this, used to be one of my favorite albums... Max: Blueprint or Cold Vein... which is better?

  3. I love this album "Cold Vein" is undeniabely my favorite underground album. "A B-Boy's Alpha" and "Pigeon" are my favorite tracks. Hands down this albums a classic.

  4. FINALLY!!!!

  5. Good review Max!

    Cold Vein has always been one of my favourite 'modern' LPs. Great production and Vast Aire absolutely kills it.

  6. AnonymousJuly 13, 2009

    Great Review! 100% co-sign!
    Best Hip Hop album of the 2000s!!!!
    Don't really want to see a Can-Ox reunion,
    it will only dissappoint.

  7. Scotty MacJuly 14, 2009

    Nice review Max!
    If I remember correctly, I'm pretty sure I bagged out 'Atom' in my review, maybe I should give it another chance.

    Okawoa, the same question is on my mind - maybe max can start running a poll or something.

  8. AnonymousJuly 14, 2009

    Good review lost this album years ago.

    hey check out the wu-tang review, and many more reviews at Novablast.blogspot.com

  9. i have problems getting into this album, not because of the lyrics but because of the weird beats created here

  10. At first listen (which was now), the beats were strange and not very attractive. IT BETTER GROW ON ME SEEING AS HALF MY FRIENDS NAME THIS THEIR GOAT ALBUM.

  11. Yeah, this is definitely my favorite album of all time.

  12. Great album, cant get enough of it

  13. at first i was kind of skeptical about these guys, because i listened to two of their song from this album, and i wasn't feeling it, but after reading this review, i decided to give these guys another chance of listen, and guess what??? im going to cop this shit right now!

  14. B-Boy Alpha is one of the best songs I've ever heard. But I could really, really, really, really, really, really do without Vast's first line. I mean seriously, what the flying fuck was the purpose of that? Aaaaargh, now I've got to try and scrub my brain cells. They will never be clean again! Otherwise the album is near-immaculate. Brilliant.

  15. so i noticed how every good MC u come across while reviewing an album is made to go through the - i wonder how he sounds over a preemo beat!

  16. Honestly though, Vast Aire is better than half the Wu-Tang members imo.
    And Killah Priest > U-God, so that's that.

  17. interested

  18. AnonymousJuly 11, 2011


  19. The production is THE BEST EVER, as is everything el-p has ever done.

    The rapping is hit or miss at times but mostly consistent.
    It's a classic.

  20. Is it just me that thinks Vast Aire sounds a hell of a lot like Thesaurus?

  21. Vast is really not.that good. He comes off.super pretentious, I.fuck with vordul Mega more