The game of chess has been a unifier of people, countries, and cultures over its thousand-year history. Now the game can take credit for the formation of Banks & Steelz, the collaborative brainchild of unlikely friends Paul Banks (Interpol) and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. Banks & Steelz first started working on sessions for what would become Anything But Words (Warner Bros. Records) in 2013 between chess matches, and although not perfect, the album could be considered a successful checkmate.
Mutual fans of each other’s work, the key to the album lies in the collaborators willingness to stick to their plan and never succumb to pressures from the outside music world. Like MySpace and Paris Hilton, a rap-rock album seems like something we abandoned back in the early 2000’s without a second thought. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who believes that starting a rap-rock group in 2016 is a recipe for success, however what separates Anything But Words from other rap-rock records is that RZA and Paul Banks never try to intertwine the two genres together. Rather, each song seems to be composed of two distinctly different projects patched together, with RZA and Banks’ voices rarely ever heard in unison. Most of these tracks are composed of a rap verse, followed by an indie-rock chorus, followed by subsequent rap verses; like pausing and playing two different records at the same time but never playing both at once. This formula works surprisingly well for the majority of the album, providing for a fresh and original record that commands repeated listens.
Wu-Tang Clan and Interpol are two groups whose career peaks are behind them, but Anything But Words reminds us that both collaborators are still amongst the greatest in their respective fields. This is immediately evident on the hard-hitting album opener “Giant”, maybe the best of these twelve tracks. Age hasn’t had any effect on RZA’s intensity, and “Giant” exudes a pounding urgency from the rap giant reminiscent of the early Wu-Tang albums. Touching on GMO’s, fracking, and climate change, RZA sounds genuinely furious about the state of our planet, while Banks’ arrives just in time with a gliding chorus to make us feel that there is still hope left. “Sword in the Stone” (produced by Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt) will be a sure-fire success live on stage, with one listen able to pump you up no matter your mood.
Lyrically, several of RZA’s verses touch on the dark subjects of our modern world, but the downer realism evaporates with some of the most uplifting choruses Paul Banks has ever written. Whereas most of the album confirms RZA’s rapping is still in a class of its own, “Speedway Sonora” is Paul Banks’ time to shine with a chorus that could easily appear on any of Interpol’s biggest singles. “Wild Season” is one of the only songs that break the RZA verse / Paul Banks chorus mould. Here Florence Welch stops by for a duet with Paul Banks, adding a female perspective to the song’s tale of wild regrets. Hearing their two voices together is proof that Paul Banks can easily make a fantastic duet record with the Florence and the Machine leader, as their vocal blend stands out as one of the most soothing sounds on the record.
The record’s biggest flaw is that its formula is repetitive and can sometimes get tiring. The uniqueness of the split song structure on the first few tracks wears off by the second half of the album, and several of the tracks could have easily been cut out. At nearly a full hour in length, the album becomes predictable, especially on later songs “Can’t Hardly Feel” and “One By One”. Sometimes the songs are unnecessarily forced into being rap-rock, where it would have been perfectly acceptable and stimulating to have a few solo RZA and Banks tracks. The album has enough guests (Welch, Ghostface Killah, Method Man) to keep things interesting, and it will be intriguing to hear what these guest-heavy songs sound like on stage. Anything But Words teaches us that rap-rock is not a genre to be automatically dismissed and is packed with enough energizing and refreshing songs to make the album worthy of repeated and careful listening.