Variable Unit 

Handbook for the Apocalypse

A live-jazz-meets-hip-hop collective straight from the Bay Area, Variable Unit features a variety of local players pooling their skills to create one of the year's most sonically diverse and mentally stimulating albums. A follow-up to its dope debut Seven Grain, VU this time tackles the very real threat of World War III. The bandmembers don't cry "give peace a chance" or shout for a flag-burning revolution, but most of Handbook's thirteen tracks address some facet of government: institutionalized racism, freedom of speech, oil wars, environmental chaos, bioterror, and so forth.

Standout tracks include the funk-heavy opener "We Are at War," featuring turntable O.G. DJ Quest tastefully shredding various records over thumping drums, thick bass action, and soulful Rhodes work from Kat Ouano of Crown City Rockers. The title track highlights Azeem's always on-point lyricism, with trippy guitar flourishes and busy beats supporting his thought-provoking wordplay.

"Hologram Network" is an intense concept song, with a futuristic newscaster calmly breaking down the state of the world circa 2029, rife with killer viruses, cloning complexes, and insane weather attacks, all set to a backdrop of spooky organ hums and skittering rimshots. Other winners include the flute-laden "Transcending Terror" and the lively closer "Beyond Babylon."

While unlikely to burn up the dance-floor or knock 50 Cent off the charts, Handbook for the Apocalypse is the ideal choice for any politically minded music fan. Even with such heavy subject matter, these guys never take themselves too seriously, adding a healthy amount of wit and humor to the mix. The instrumentation, DJ work, vocals, and rampant samples all fuse to create a highly original sound and a truly impressive record.

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