On Hex Dealer, Lip Critic Let Us In On the Joke

The New York four-piece’s Partisan Records debut finds the electropunk tricksters trafficking in brilliant bullshit.

Music Reviews Lip Critic
On Hex Dealer, Lip Critic Let Us In On the Joke

In discussions of Brooklyn-based, double-drum digital hardcore outfit Lip Critic, a standard canon of comparable artists has cropped up—MSPAINT, JPEGMAFIA, Death Grips. And while shades of all these artists emerge at various points throughout Lip Critic’s small but bombastic catalog, this band, more than anything else, feels like the latest link in a chain connecting various strains of New York rock history. The frenetic buzziness of the band’s most often-cited influence, Television, comes through, as does the bass-booming, shout-along rowdiness of the Beastie Boys. Their fondness for yelpy vocals and grimy, bassy electronic arrangements also hark back to the dance-punk of the late-Meet Me In The Bathroom days or bands like Liars or the Rapture, but way less horny. Lip Critic could potentially be lumped in with the other acts leading the alleged indie sleaze revival, but the songs on Hex Dealer seem to be primarily concerned with other forms of consumption, their over-the-top manifestations of commodity fetishism often being more perverse than sexual debauchery.

On Hex Dealer, all money is dirty money, and each act of buying and selling feeds an insatiable ego. Dead-on in their ruthless parodying, Lip Critic amp up ideals of capitalist individualism to their most over-the-top extremes, revealing the true ridiculousness of the notion that the ability to buy a new car or a designer outfit or a custom-made sandwich is the pinnacle of freedom and self-determination. Lead vocalist Bret Kaser begins “It’s The Magic”—a blown-out, descent-into-Hell of an opener—bemoaning “I thought I’d feel free in my brand new jeans” and later begs “open up your pockets and show me a thing or two.” On fan favorite “In The Wawa (Convinced I Am A God)” Kaser’s power trip descends into an ego death of sorts when he’s faced with his own alienation: “They wouldn’t give it to me / A vision of myself / So I drink the image that they sell on the shelf.” It’s this kind of thrilling, tinnitus-inducing, sensory overload that magnifies just how dense and charged a mundane interaction (or transaction) can be.

The characters that populate the songs on Hex Dealer are often these larger-than-life pastiches of already-cartoonish figures we’re well familiar with. The cult leader intoning over ominous, left-right panned sampler feedback from Kaser and Connor Kleitz, and Danny Eberle and Ilan Natter’s dark, pounding drums on “Sermon” is recognizable as any number of celebrities whose unchecked egoism gets repackaged as spiritual wisdom (one might even wonder if the “silver surfer man” mentioned could be a reference to a certain Ye interlude). As the track falls into an earsplitting, increasingly unintelligible outro, so too does its crooked protagonist. The titular “Milky Max” kicks off with distorted animal noises that bleed into a glitchy melody and, lyrically, comes off as a parody of a manosphere, “billionaire mindset”-type of guy—the kind you’ve probably seen preaching from behind a podcast mic. Our narrator—the Virgin to Milky Max’s Chad, if you will—looks us to this figure as a symbol for all the ways he himself has failed to achieve the valorized ideals of masculinity that this man embodies (“He’s that Barbie movie Ken / He seems to have all that I lack”) but eventually reveals just how flimsy and arrested these ideals are (“There he goes / On the hooves of the cattle / With a feather in his hand / Still clutching a rattle”).

Critiques of capitalism aside—scratch that; critiques of capitalism included and essential—Hex Dealer is a silly, goofy album by a silly, goofy band. “I know I run my mouth no matter what I say / I am like styrofoam, I’ll never go away / I never seem to win, I’m losing every day / So I’ll become the problem that I refuse to change,” Kaser warbles on “Toxin Dodger,” a staticky closing track that returns to the ever-present theme of spiritual bankruptcy (“There is no love that fills me / Only things that thrill me”) and features verses where Kaser compares himself to the Easter Bunny and cycles through just about every synonym for “stomach” you could think of. Kaser has said that he was inspired to write “In The Wawa” because he just really fucking likes Wawa, and who among us, other than maybe the diehard Sheetz brand loyalists, can’t relate?

It’s a common talking point in contemporary music writing to highlight the way any slightly off-kilter buzz band “explores the absurdity of modern life” just because they have weird time signatures or bleep-bloopy beats or lyrics about having an existential crisis while buying a bag of chips or whatever. Whether it’s in the repetitive, New Wave-y training montage hype of “The Heart” or Kaser shouting “So What? You think I’m a baby boy!” over the acid-reflux melody and Eberle and Natter’s dual, hollow, echo-y drums of the bubbly “Spirit Bomber,” Lip Critic’s absurdism never feels like some tacked-on gag. They are not a band that’s trying to sound weird or abrasive, they just are weird and abrasive. Perhaps that’s the key to Hex Dealer’s greatness—it’s a record that just is.

Read our recent Best of What’s Next feature on Lip Critic here.

Grace Robins-Somerville is a writer from Brooklyn, New York, currently based in Wilmington, North Carolina. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Her work has appeared in The Alternative, Merry-Go-Round Magazine, Post-Trash, Swim Into The Sound and her “mostly about music” newsletter, Our Band Could Be Your Wife.

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