Let’s keep it simple – “animated” is the only word to describe this album. First, you must know that Ragz Mo’ Rocka is a cartoon group. Made up of guitarist Flu, deejay Grayscale, vocalist Sir Reel, drummer Lil’ Russ, and bassist Big Dub, as well as a girl named Topaz, a blue dog, and a floating mushroom called Fungy, Ragz Mo’ Rocka is one lively and colorful bunch. Their illustrated depictions on the cover and sleeve of Rising of the Phoenix are simple yet very alive – from Big Dub’s purple sweatsuit to Lil’ Russ’ green afro to Flu’s wickedly crooked jaw, each individual’s visual representation alludes to his musical character on the album.
The best thing about Rising of the Phoenix is that its music is as animated as its cartoon players. Not quite hip-hip, techno, nor rock, it is all and none of the above throughout their debut album. But the varied styles don’t all fare equally well – specifically, the group’s more rockin’ offerings are significantly less pleasing than their beat-based songs. This chink in the armor is a noticeable flaw throughout the record, and shows particularly sore spots in “Good Timez” and “Hooked.” But this is far from a fatal flaw. As they contribute to the album’s broad color scheme and establish Ragz Mo’ Rocka’s eagerness to work with a variety of shades of music, these songs still have some merit. Alone, they are quite bland, but taken in the greater context, they make Rising of the Phoenix a stronger album.
The real highlights come when Ragz Mo’ Rocka set their boisterously pigmented selves free. Most often this sounds like a fat, funky beat smashed into a collage of various instruments and noises. Ragz Mo’ Rocka is on par with the Roots and Ozomatli in their ability to assimilate creative, percussive beats with lead guitar parts.
“Question of Reflection” preaches the indulgence ethos of the ’80s with none of the sappy nostalgia or worn-out techno blips. When Sir Reel sings, “I’m finding Southern comfort in a fifth and a spliff,” not only is it a nice rhyme, but it also makes me want to join him. The title track, “Rising of the Phoenix,” is an ethereal and hypnotically rhythmic instrumental track that is far more emotional and full of life than your typical instrumental breakdown. The group’s vivacious attitude again finds itself in top form on “El Amalgado,” a cover of a Bert Bacharach tune rapped in Spanish over conga drums and an acoustic guitar.
While Rising of the Phoenix certainly has its ups and downs, its overall feel is so vibrant and energetic that even the more derivative and forgettable songs contribute to its special quality. When a group can put their mediocre songs to work while allowing their better songs to shine, that’s an accomplishment. Leave it up to a bunch of toons to show us how it’s done.