How Lil Ugly Mane’s ‘Raging Bull’ foreshadowed his transition towards lo-fi bedroom pop.
After the release of his new record, Volcanic Bird Enemy and the Voiced Concern, it seems that the fans of mysterious underground rap figure Lil Ugly Mane are somewhat divided. It’s simple to see why when listening to the record. A sudden transition from Lil Ugly Mane’s trademark grim industrial hip-hop sound to a new kind of intensely unique rock pop, infused with traits of psychedelic rock, lo-fi, slowcore and shoegaze was just about the last thing that any of his fans would have predicted, even if the singles had been suggestive of a change in direction and Ugly Mane’s diehard fans would have already known of his other aliases, under which he makes a plethora of wildly ranging records.
Considering that Lil Ugly Mane, real name Travis Miller, is known by up to fifty different names within music and art generally, even having one alias dedicated to a magazine titled Clowns and Browns which is focused on two things: clowns and shit (no, not the slang ‘and shit’, literal faecal matter!), perhaps it’s a little strange to be surprised by anything this man does. He has been involved in so many different things, and has the talent and creativity required to make all of them work to a certain extent, dipping his toes into a wide range of musical genres and never really putting his foot wrong in any notable way. The same can be said for his new record – whilst the mentions of change preceding this may sound negative, I assure you the new record is breathtakingly unique, utterly gorgeous in its sound whilst remaining cripplingly sad in its lyrical content… it’s phenomenal, really.
To get back on track, it is worth noting that this is the first project released by Travis Miller under the Lil Ugly Mane alias in some time. With Lil Ugly Mane being confirmed as a dead character following the release of Miller’s most notable masterpiece, Oblivion Access, and the release shortly after of a *huge* compilation of music by Miller simply titled ‘RIP’, the obvious expectations were that we would never hear from this character again. At best, some expected another record detailing the afterlife of the character, but Miller had already spoken about this on Oblivion Access’ third track ‘Grave Within A Grave’, and the release of his ‘Volume 1: Flick Your Tongue Against Your Teeth And Describe The Present’ under a new alias (bedwetter.) seemed to confirm a definite move in a new direction, even if the sound of the music was similar.
The bedwetter record, and maybe more importantly some of the statements that Miller made about the album around its release date, clearly dig into something more personal than we had seen previously from character like Lil Ugly Mane. Miller released an extended post on Facebook at one point detailing that he had been struggling mentally, and had tried to check himself into a hospital as he was worried about his mental health and didn’t want to harm himself or anybody else – the post is excellent, a very emotionally aware and deeply introspective, brutally honest look at Miller’s mental state and how he felt failed by the mental health systems that are in place (something I have certainly felt, and judging from the comments on Miller’s post, many others have experienced similar things too), and the album released under the bedwetter name is undoubtedly one of the harshest listens one can endure.
It’s a record that sees Miller open himself up to his audience as he never had before. His other music had been dark, sure – Oblivion Access especially had a grim perspective on the world – but this was something altogether different. The instrumentals are intensely haunting, the use of samples create this fragmented, disconnected feeling that isolates the listener and the few tracks which see Miller deliver verses are unfathomably depressing. ‘man wearing a helmet’ speaks about the kidnapping of a young boy in third person and in gruesome detail, before switching to reveal that this story appears to actually be a series of repressed memories from Miller (or, the record’s narrator at least. bedwetter is a character after all). ‘stoop lights’ remains the bleakest of any Ugly Mane song for me, as it brutally waxes lyrical about the pits of alcohol addiction and dependency, a disconnection from yourself, your friends and your family and a lifestyle only punctuated by brief spats of sobriety which are only experienced to make getting drunk once again more effective.
Other tracks like ‘branch’ and ‘haze of interference’ continue down this line of intense, very explicit tracks focused in on mental illness, addiction and depravity. The samples remain dizzying, even including one sample from Jandek which is especially disturbing when matched against Miller’s desperate shouting into the microphone. Again, it is suggested that many of these tracks are about Miller himself, as he directly refers to himself on ‘haze of interference’, saying:
‘You’re never getting better, you’re addicted to the madness,
You treat it like a muse, are you happy now, Travis?’
The hardcore, industrial hip-hop sound became grimmer here. And so, logically, the expectation was for Travis to continue in that direction, potentially chasing something even darker and managing to capture it as he had with the bedwetter record. But the release of an extended LP of the bedwetter project held a new track which suggested the new direction that Miller has gone in.
That track is the wonderful ‘Raging Bull’, a track which had floated around YouTube for some time but remained without any official release until the decision was made to include it along with two other tracks on an extended version of the bedwetter record. Whilst the other two additions continued along the same lines as the rest of Miller’s ‘mainstream’ or more recognised work, ‘Raging Bull’ shifted more so towards experimental pop. It merges a 90s-style dance with some distorted bells beautifully, with blunt drums almost attacking the ears and a voice so heavily drowned in filters and so muffled that even having listened to the track 20+ times I still cannot tell if the voice on this track is Miller’s with some changes or a sample. Supposedly, the title refers to Martin Scorsese’s 1980 masterpiece of the same name, about Jake LaMotta, a boxer who fails to keep his emotions in check outside of the ring and often damages his own life as well as the lives of those he loves in doing so – the links to Miller and his mental health feel clear. The track opens with waves of distorted feedback, almost folding over itself in terms of volume over and over to create a hard-hitting, uncomfortable effect instantly before shifting towards a much more surreal and dreamy sound. It’s still undoubtedly a dark track – the brooding nature of the guitars used fill me with dread every single time I hear them – but the catchiness of the hi-hats used and the wonderful lightness of the full beat in action is stunning.
And now, with this new record (which I won’t go into too much detail regarding, as I do have a review already written, I am just waiting for it to be published!), Ugly Mane has finally completed his slow emigration towards fully experimenting with pop. The fact that ‘Raging Bull’ remained without an official release for so long may show a hesitance on his behalf to fully follow his interest in experimental pop, but there is no turning back now. And whilst some fans seem upset by the drastic nature of the musical shift, I believe that time will certainly prove that this new record is ahead of its time in many ways, and is a wonderful new chapter for Travis to either follow or abandon for another sound. He is an immensely talented musician and lyricist, always following his instincts and his feelings in a bold way, and now it has led him towards an entirely new sound – so be it, if it can deliver the absolutely dizzying highs of tracks like ‘Headboard’ and ‘Porcelain Slightly’.
Note: You can buy Lil Ugly Mane’s full discography (28 albums!) from his Bandcamp.