Personnel: Mike Crossey (programming).
Recording information: 123 Studios, London; 36 West, Los Angeles, CA; Blackmail Studios, Los Angeles, CA; Electric Lady Studios, New York, NY; Henson Recording Studios, Los Angeles; Record Plant, Los Angeles; Woodshed Recording, Malibu, CA.
Photographer: Atiba Jefferson.
Cross-genre collaborations don't always land as expected. When combining riffs and rhymes, there's a high risk that descriptors like "rap-rock" and even "nu-metal" will creep up to cloud objectivity, recalling ghosts from the late '90s. On Anything But Words, the debut effort from Banks & Steelz, two seemingly disparate forces mesh so well that it sounds like they were meant to be together all along. In 2013, Interpol frontman and self-professed hip-hop head Paul Banks was introduced to Wu-Tang Clan head RZA, and after connecting, they formed a new project named after the main talents (one of RZA's alter egos is Bobby Steels). Banks brought his baritone and nocturnal post-punk guitar handiwork while RZA injected his pristine hip-hop production skills and aggressive rhymes. The project benefits both men: Banks hasn't sounded this good over a tight rhythm since Carlos D. took his bass and left Interpol, and RZA -- invigorated and bursting with passion -- hasn't spit this hard in almost a decade. They elevate each other over 12 tracks that never lose momentum. The album starts hard and fast, with a one-two-three kick-off that justifies the whole Banks & Steelz concept. "Giant" is the aptly titled first track, which sets the tone with an intensely earnest RZA, a propulsive beat, and a soaring chorus by Banks. It glimmers with programmed effects and polish courtesy of producers John Hill and Kid Harpoon. After the glitchy gem "Ana Electronic," the bass-heavy "Sword in the Stone" brings the heat, a jagged, menacing beast that features a standout verse from Kool Keith and production from Andrew Wyatt (Miike Snow, Bruno Mars, Beck). Unexpected guest Florence Welch lends her ethereal vocals to "Wild Season," which may sound like one too many cooks in this sonic kitchen but ends up being a highlight of the album. After an energetic and exciting first half, Anything But Words slows down and adopts a near-trip-hop energy. The cool funk of "Conceal" undulates and seduces while "Can't Hardly Feel" pops like a chilled-out Faithless track. The creeping "One by One," another highlight, channels Massive Attack on a moody, slow-burning hypnotizer. Being a RZA production, it's only natural that a few friends dropped by the recording session. Wu-Tang fans will rejoice over the inclusion of a trio of welcome voices: Ghostface Killah brings his formidable flow to "Love and War," while Method Man and Masta Killa close the album on "Point of View." Anything But Words is a stellar and truly collaborative endeavor between two creative energies, the result of an organic songwriting process that is anything but thrown together. ~ Neil Z. Yeung