Album Review: Jellyfish Brigade – “Diving Lessons”
Ever since I was introduced to and started sharing music by the Jellyfish Brigade, I’ve been anticipating a more recent release. Today is the day, my friends! The Portland hip hop duo, made up of emcee Lucas Dix and producer Jeffrey Acciaioli, finally released their highly-anticipated debut album, titled Diving Lessons, on June 24th via Minneapolis artist collective Polkadot Mayhem.
Diving Lessons details a 2-year period in Lucas’ life that began as his best friend, Gavin Theory, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In high school, they made music together as Hives Inquiry Squad and eventually moved to Portland from Wisconsin to pursue their artist endeavors. Around the same time that his best friend was diagnosed, Lucas met a lady who introduced him to the scenic places of Oregon, such as the Cascade Mountain Range, Mt. Hood, the Columbia River Gorge, and the Pacific Ocean. Those places, that love, and the difficulties in supporting a dying friend set the whole tone and theme for the album.
“When we started conceptualizing this album, I was spending a lot of time exploring the wonders of Oregon. I hiked in the Columbia River Gorge, fished in the lakes on Mt. Hood, jumped from cliffs and bridges into the Clackamas River, and searched for hermit crabs in tide pools along the Pacific Ocean. I was falling in love with a wonderful woman who lead me on these journeys, and I wanted to make an album all about our expeditions. I wanted to make an album about how I was becoming more empathetic to the people around me, about how I was treating my body better, and about how I was changing my perspective on the world. I stopped sitting around and talking about the universe, love, enlightenment, and all those other topics that occupy the thoughts of someone who is lost in their mid 20s. Instead, I wanted to do things that made me feel at peace with myself and feel at one with the earth. Skipping stones became my religion and the river my prophet.
Then my best friend, Gavin Soens (aka Gavin Theory of Hives Inquiry Squad), was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had already lost his leg due to the disease, but we hoped that would be enough to cure him. It wasnâ€™t. As I was out wandering around the woods, my friend was at home coming to grips with his mortality. Gavin is one of the strongest people I have ever met and remains my favorite producer/emcee ever. My times with him as a member of Hives Inquiry Squad have helped shape who I am today. Watching his body slowly fail him over a two-year period remains one of the most difficult experiences of my life, which is a weird thing to say because I wasnâ€™t the one dying. Eventually, my thoughts and fears in regards to losing one of the people closest to me started finding their way into the new songs.
We finished writing and recording the album about two months after Gavin had passed away and the lady I fell in love with moved back to the east coast due to a family tragedy that she experienced. At one point, I felt that releasing this project would be some sort of closure, the dried ink to a chapter of what was the most emotional and intense time in my life. Fortunately for me though, itâ€™s not. I still think about those two frequently. The lessons theyâ€™ve taught me still affect my daily interactions with people and my creations in solitude.
So here it is folks. Diving Lessons. Bump it, download it, burn it for a friend, share it on the Internet, or do whatever else you want to do with it. Jeff and I are proud to finally release it to the world. We hope you enjoy it.”
Comprised of 10 tracks, with a total play time of about 36 minutes, the album explores themes of death, letting go, love, hope, and self-discovery. Hands down, this is their best work. If you haven’t heard any of Jellyfish Brigade’s prior EP releases, I would feel more than comfortable recommending Diving Lessons as a starting point.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I love how vast and creative Lucas’ vocabulary and phrasing is. He really knows how to tell a story with poetic poise and imagery that make it easy for the listener to closely follow along. That, combined with his impeccable cadence, flow, and R&B-stylized hooks all over Jeffrey’s tight beats is a recipe for perfection. Together, they present a unique personality and voice in hip hop that I really gravitate towards. I am a huge fan of them, so I reviewed their album track-by-track. Check it out.
01. BURN FAST
“Burn, muhfucka, burn fast.” Jellyfish Brigade doesn’t sugar coat shit, and they sure don’t bother to throw you a life jacket at the start of the album. “Burn Fast” sounds like the calm before the storm; it’s that split-second pause that a boat has at the edge of a chaotic waterfall, just before it nose-dives down into adrenaline-rushing, waves of terror. Producer Jeffrey Acciaioli shows off his intelligent composition work here with a dark, intimidating beat that is lush in textural manipulations. It’s one that can easily stand on its own, but sounds even better with Lucas’ creative imagery, colorful rhyming, super clever metaphors, and an emotive flow that makes you feel on edge with him. “I am mostly water and the physics still apply to mine // So when the moon’s right, I feel a rising tide inside.”
When deciphering this song, I feel like it is about two main things: 1) Lucas is expressing his sense of disgust with the current state of humanity; and 2) It’s a struggle within himself; the contrasting feelings of facing obstacles with fear and stepping back, or finding the great courage to conquer it. Will he ignore the issues and let humanity self-destruct under its own demise (“I’ve been told by river rafters that apparitions gather here // To whisper laughter at the fears of timid cavaliers // I’m slipping past, risking capture just to have a clear // Shot at witnessing the splattered crimson in the stratosphere“), or will he choose to be the one to light the fire and watch it all burn? “I hit the Butteâ€™s peak and catch a view that gives me whiplash // Know that Iâ€™ve arrived, turn around and torch the bridge back”
02. MAN THE RIVERBOAT
If you visited this website, you would have seen an exclusive video revolving around the ideas behind this song. Lucas talked about a time spent at Eagle Creek with his friends, and their mutual agreement to jump off of the cliff, into the water. His best friend Gavin jumped off, landed on his side, and was badly bruised. Another friend jumped off, and landed just fine. However, Lucas was the only one not to jump, because he was thinking too much about the probability of getting hurt.
Lucas said this song came about when he and Jeffrey were talking about their summer(s) by the river. It’s about solely relying on himself to make his own mistakes and decisions, and not relying on friends, or philosophers, or literature, or anyone else to dictate what he does. The liberating song is about not thinking about what things mean and just doing things that he enjoys.
Even without knowing all of that background insight, his message is very prevalent in the lyrics (“I alone can define what the I is told“). In the beginning, the lyrics are packed with calculated thought and he intertwines popular literature, art, and phrases… which kind of act as a suggestion to how some rely on outside sources to tell them how to be. (“Shortened laps on the cycle of Siddhartha // Do unto others, Brother, shit is vital for the karma“). Not that one shouldn’t embrace another person’s words and ideas, but that’s not the point. The rest finds Lucas manning the riverboat and doing what he, and only he, wants to do. Taking life as it comes and acting accordingly… alone, without relying on quotes and a set of cookie-cutter rules to guide him through life. It’s an anthem of sorts to independence–independent thought, will, and decisions… all over a fun, upbeat electro beat full of motion. Head-nodding drum kicks, 8bit-like electronic noises, slinky synths and playful percussion. Love the shifting between rapping and singing parts, too. Catchy and carefree with a message. I dig it.
“I found myself // When I lost it all // By the sloping banks // And the waterfalls, I know // Thereâ€™s a crystal ball fog ahead // No sweat though, Iâ€™ll brave it wisely // I know I canâ€™t control the flow of things // And no scholar or saint can guide me”
03. ASTRONAUTS AND PIRATES TO THE RESCUE
“As playing lads we were astronauts or pirates // Weaving through the space or sea toward a planet or an island // In search of signs of life or treasure…A quarter century later // These have still been my endeavors”
Punchy drums, hushed hi-hat taps, a mellow synth line, and delicate percussion casually rolls through the start of it, but soon builds up with the prettiest electronic space sounds and deep rumbling synths. Calling out all dreamers of dreams, this one’s for you. With a great imagination and a poetic way with words, Lucas suits up as a space man (or, that of a super hero) by day and a pirate by night to remind us that the world needs more dreamers, and more adventurous fun. Be comfortable enough to set high dreams/goals for yourself and believe that you can get there. Hold onto anything that will keep you motivated to be what/whomever you want. Pretend you’re an astronaut or a pirate, saving lives and fighting to stay alive. Tie that cape around your neck, and be your own superhero (“Got a little super hero complex, I wanna save the village and the people in it // Sharp aim with a cross bow and the smarts of the ancient to defeat the wicked“). High hopes and dreams.
“I need something that I can want, something that I can follow // Something worth getting out of bed tomorrow // Even if I never touch it, as long as it exists // Itâ€™ll be the reason why I can handle this shit”
04. AGATES AND ANEMONES
Over some lonely keys, time is fleeting as Lucas reflects on life, while being knee-deep in the ocean. In the album description, the Pacific Ocean is mentioned among the places he was introduced to by a woman he loves. I feel like this song was written based around that body of water and the experience he had. Feeling one with the ocean, with the world. Amongst finding a peace of mind, he contemplates aging and where one will be at certain points of life.
When I was listening to this album, and this one came into play, it felt a little underwhelming in comparison. It wasn’t grabbing me as much as the rest, you know? I mean, it is good and it holds some emotional thought, but something was just “meh” about it. So, I listened to the song on its own the following day, on repeat, and it grew on me. I feel you, Lucas.
05. IF I WERE A KING
With my first listen of this song, I wasn’t vibing with the beat. The booming bass kicks weren’t hitting the way it was supposed to be heard through the speakers that were plugged into my laptop, so I plugged in my quality headphones instead and all was right again. Sometimes you just have to switch the speaker mode of delivery, to fully appreciate a song.
Not knocking against the hard-hitting drums here, but my favorite parts of the song were the moments where the beat was minimal and the hook came in. In the usual sing-song manner, he sings alone and is then joined by another voice towards the end: “Raise your glass and toast with me // We’ll deal with the difficulties when the morning comes // Yeah, we’re done with the fight // Well, at least for the night // It’s easier, my friend // Beneath the moon, shining light // Raise your glass and toast with me // I’ll be here with you til we see the next orange sun // Well, if I were a king // With riches to my name // I swear to you, my friend, we live right now the same.”
Not just in title, but in portions of the lyrics, this song kind of reminds me of Atmosphere’s “If I Was Santa Claus”. Anybody else feel that way? With a tilted, black fitted hat as his jewel crown, Lucas connects social commentary (power of authority, famine, debt, social standing, etc) with the proposed actions that he would take if he had a king’s power to change problematic issues. There’s a sense of feeling powerless in not being capable to enact such change, but at the same time, he knows he possesses the true royalty of family, togetherness, and happiness. It’s less of a conscious song, and more of a song that celebrates life, knowledge, and equality amongst your friends/family. Or, at least, that’s what I got from it. Such a dope song.
“Our best is yet to come, I say that proud as I can be // In hopes my best is a horizon, beaming out of reach // So drink up, this laughter and some tears when we link up // Entertaining fables and philosophies we think of // So when I pull down, like I’ve had my phoenix wings cut // I call my family to join and live it like a king does”
06. IN THE GREEN GRASS
What an uplifting song this is! We all sometimes forget to appreciate what we have, and instead focus heavily on what we don’t have while envying what other’s might/do have. With this song, they shed the whole “the grass is greener on the other side” idea, and instead find happiness and feel blessed with what they already have (“But over yonderâ€™s full of the same stuff // And I end up longing for the acres I came from“).
On the website, Lucas sits at Mt. Tabor park and discussed writing the song two months after Gavin passed away and his lady moved back to the East Coast. Having been overwhelmed with the two, he processed his heartache in a positive way by writing this song (“Try to tell my peoples I love â€˜em before itâ€™s too late // And they journey to the light or pack up their suitcases“). Also in the video, I really like when he mentions a conversation that he and Jeffrey once had about already having that green grass, and how they just need to make sure that they water it.
I absolutely love that he wanted to expose his vulnerability and share personal stories of loss and letting go by penning them down into a beautiful, inspirational song. The two verses are open letters to those previously mentioned, and it finds Lucas accepting what has happened, then finding solace, and developing into a better man. Through it all, “In The Green Grass” serves as a reminder that we “shouldn’t sweat the other things,” on top of being fortunate for what we have or once had, to always express your love before it’s too late, and to grow from experiences and/or big life changes. I love this song.
“Fortunate enough to know that Iâ€™m fortunate // Got shoulder support when my emotions are porcelain // Handful of homies I consider my brothers // And when Iâ€™m absolutely clueless I hit up my mother”
07. THE DECAY OF
Bare of any words, this lovely beat is crafted with delicate percussion that slowly climbs with deep, dark keys. It’s subtle, but the moody ambiance speaks volumes. You just gotta listen.
08. OLD SNAIL SHELL, DIME, NICKEL AND NAIL
Holy smokes, I love this beat. The buildup is the best, too! You’re greeted with a buzzing noise, multiple sets of trotting clicks, thick warped synths, hard-hitting bass drums, and haunting vocals that breeze throughout. There’s a split-second silence before the beat comes in at full glory with the raps. Lucas matches the eerie tone, by waxing a poetic tale about death, the afterlife, and being ill-prepared. “Into the light, into the light // Flesh and bone feed the Earth’s appetite // Spend the afterlife in the dark of the night // Makes sense to me but I hope I ain’t right.”
Definitely one of my favorite songs. The beat is interesting, the subject matter is intriguing and thought-provoking, and the song as whole is just really, really fantastic.
“When I go, don’t lay me in the mausoleum temple // Place beneath the stars, in the rocks up in the meadow // So my remains can nourish all the flowers and the petals // He told me souls are passengers, and bodies are just vessels // And when we’re done, we travel through the cosmos // To a special place // Well if that’s the case, then we should probably just let go // But I ain’t for it // There’s too much of me to be still…”
Said to be inspired by the Mirror Lake, located at the foot of Tom Dick and Harry Mountain, in Oregon, this is a tribute to the state of Oregon and its influence on him. Leaving behind all communication means and electronic devices, Lucas hikes along the Eagle Creek Trail towards the Wy’east Falls to take a breath of fresh air, feel alive, and enjoy his surroundings. Having seen the videos (placed throughout this review), I would be in love with the view, too.
10. WILLOW SEED SERENADE
Throwing risk and overcomplicated thought out the window, Jellyfish Brigade makes that leap of faith into the river. Remember when I mentioned that scenario where Lucas and his friend Gavin were going to jump off that cliff, but Lucas couldn’t do it? I feel like this is him returning to that spot and jumping in without question or worry (Taken from the sing-a-long chorus: “You told me be calm // Just put your head down // Hold your breath in // And then you cut loose // So when my body // Hit the water // I was certain // That I loved you“). Whether it’s a sweet dedication to their friendship, a thankful toast to the love he shared, or a vow to himself to live life freely, it’s a beautiful song. Fueled by determination and an adventurous outlook on life, this is Lucas’ showing us that he will treasure every experience that comes and goes, and is ready for the world.
This is like the sister song “Man The Riverboat”. The production is wonderfully composed, too, with the layering of a heartbeat drum rhythm, snapping snare hits, bright and delicate piano keys, and twisting synths. It’s graceful in sound. I couldn’t help but nod my head and move my body to the inviting melody. I can feel the bliss that radiates through this song. Great way to end it.
“The willow seeds floated to their final resting place, like dying legends // I’m guessing, maybe ancient time will bless them // Used to long for more, pledge to the blind of session // But answers lie everywhere, and now my eyes detect ’em // So while some would reach in hopes to climb to heaven // We grace the rocky edges, prepping for diving lessons.”
As you can see, I honestly and greatly enjoyed every track. I don’t have anything negative to say about any one of them, other than not particularly gravitating towards one (“Agates and Anemones”) as strongly as the others. It is one of those albums that you won’t want to put down and move onto the next thing, which is a common happening with the evergrowing popularity of hip hop. You will want to listen to over and over, learn the lyrics from beginning to end, and sing along. That’s where I’m at with it. As far as favorite tracks go, I’d have to say “Burn Fast,” “Man The Riverboat,” “Astronauts and Pirates to the Rescue,” “In The Green Grass,” “Old Snail Shell, Dime, Nickel and Nail,” and “Willow Seed Serenade”.
Diving Lessons is available digitally with the pay-what-you-want price, so you can either support Jellyfish Brigade with your dollars or download for free. There is an option to buy the album CD + MP3s + poster + stickers package for $15, or all of that + a t-shirt for $25. Separately from the album, you can buy a t-shirt, or the poster and stickers pack. The choice is yours, so do that over at their Bandcamp page.