In March, the Baltimore experimental hip-hop duo Infinity Knives & Brian Ennals embarked on their first European tour, and they enjoyed being on the road, playing small towns in Wales and France to surprisingly appreciative audiences after a long pandemic break from performing. “We packed out some spots we didn’t think we’d ever pack out,” says Tariq “Infinity Knives” Ravelomanana. Unfortunately, they enjoyed themselves so much that they had to cancel a show here or there. “We said we were sick, but really we just drink too much,” he says, adding ruefully, “Belgium, man…”
Perhaps the two of them needed to let loose a little after finishing their magnum opus, “King Cobra,” in February. Though Ennals made a few scene-stealing appearances on the Infinity Knives album “Dear, Sudan” in 2020, and they released a playfully laid back collaborative project, “Rhino XXL,” last year, they pushed each other much harder for the album they released on June 17th through UK-based label Phantom Limb.
“We almost killed each other. We almost scrapped it a bunch of times, because it was a really intentional record,” Ravelomanana says. “We wanted it to be dark,” Ennals says. “If Rhino was ‘Star Wars,’ this is definitely ‘[The] Empire Strikes Back.’ Luke’s hand gets cut off on this album for sure.”
In some ways they’re an odd pair. Ravelomanana, 29 with long, flowing hair, was born in Tanzania and moved around a lot before winding up in Baltimore as a teenager, and lives a bohemian existence in Charles Village as a full-time musician. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, he offhandedly mentions learning how to play viola for a track on “King Cobra,” or which songs featured sampled synths and which ones feature modular synths he programmed himself.
Ennals, 39, with a shaved head and a bushy beard, has lived in Anne Arundel County most of his life, holds down a day job and became a father in 2020. He released his last solo album, “Candy Cigarettes,” in 2013. Ravelomanana heard it and reached out, and they quickly became friends. Ever since, they’ve egged each other on to make increasingly daring music that’s deeply influenced by old school 1980s rap.
“This is the shit I grew up with, like LL Cool J and DJ Jazzy Jeff, all that shit, but it took me a second listen to Ice Cube and all the golden era dudes,” says Ravelomanana, who dreams of one day doing an album of 2Pac remixes. “I really went in a rabbit hole.”
“King Cobra” opens serenely, with Ravelomanana playing acoustic guitar as Allison Clendaniel sings an eerie folk song called “‘Neath the Willow’s Leaves.” Then the track “Coke Jaw” storms in with rapid synth arpeggios and bursts of free jazz saxophone as Ennals announces the duo’s arrival: “Cruisin’ up yo block on DMT/ We the post-apocalyptic Run-DMC.” Clendaniel, a longtime friend and collaborator of Ravelomanana, says her appearances at the beginning and end of “King Cobra” were conceived as a deliberate contrast to the rest of the album.
“He had talked to me about how there was this throughline of it being this totally chaotic, genre-bending thing, that every song exists in a different kind of soundscape,” she recalls. “The direction that I got was to foster a sense of gentleness and be, essentially, a representational mother of the rest of the experience of the record.”
Back around 2015, Ravelomanana wasn’t even thinking about releasing music of his own when he was working dead-end jobs and hanging out with a crowd that included rising Baltimore rappers like JPEGMAFIA and Abdu Ali.
“They would come over and hang out because my roommate had a cute little DIY studio in our basement,” says Abdu Ali. “They were just doing music for fun, and I was listening to their stuff, and was just like, ‘You need to put this stuff out. You need to be, like, a music artist.’ Their sonic palette is really refreshing and spiritual, it’s just dope.”
Ravelomanana’s growing network of friends and collaborators helped fulfill some of his most ambitious ideas for “King Cobra.” Thejus Chakravarthy, formerly of the Baltimore bands Queen Wolf and Lovers & Killers, is a onetime co-worker who helped with the logistics of ventures like recording vocals in a church for the acoustics, but also talked him through the sometimes stressful recording process.
“Both he and I are immigrants, both he and I came up from poverty from Third World countries, and so we had a lot of conversations about imposter syndrome, but also the immigrant grind,” he says. “He’s got probably an obscene amount of drive, to the point that he might actually put himself in the hospital because he’s just gonna drive himself over the edge. So periodically the conversation I have with him is, ‘Did you fucking nap? Did you remember to eat?’”
The push-and-pull between the omnivorously avant garde producer and Ennals’ more conventional instincts sometimes turned into serious creative differences, but they both look back on it now and laugh.
“Sometimes he’d be like, ‘Man, you don’t always have to get on your Sparklehorse shit, man, just fucking make a rap song. You don’t have to be Aphex Twin.’ Because I’d be like, oh, we can do the Fibonacci spiral, blah blah blah, all this super calculated shit, and he’d be like, ‘Just let the groove ride, man,’” Ravelomanna says. “I just really wanted to really push my musical prowess in a sense. I’m flexing.”
Ennals remembers rejecting a lot of the early tracks his friend brought in. “Tariq gave me a batch of beats first, and I just wasn’t diggin’ ’em. ‘Melancholy Boogie’ was the only one out of the original batch of beats he gave me that made it. The second batch was like ‘Oh that’s it.’”
Even once they found their momentum, the duo would still disagree on what worked: Ennals lobbied for the lead single “Death of a Constable” to be included on the album even though he was drunk and surly when it was recorded. “That one was one take, he was in a really bad mood,” Ravelomanana says.
The album manages to sound unique and futuristic despite gleefully mining the past, paying tribute to everything from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Posse On Broadway” to the obscure ’70s UK chart hit “Pinball” by Brian Protheroe. “The way Tariq freaks it, it sounds so contemporary,” Ennals says.
Ennals is hilarious and inspired throughout “King Cobra,” punctuating the oddball production with a mix of nihilistic non sequiturs and lucid social commentary: “I’m in Chipotle with a robe on, wear boat shoes to shoot dice/And I just realized the American flag’s the same color as cop lights.”
At one point he takes a pause from lampooning cops and politicians to take a couple of shots at Baltimore’s thriving DIY rap scene, which was deeply divided last year by sexual assault allegations against rapper Butch Dawson’s manager Karlos Locke: “I knew they was wack, didn’t know they was rapists/Should’ve kept that bullshit in the Bell Foundry basement.”
Ennals imbues a few early songs on “King Cobra” with pathos through sentimental references to his late father, before ending one track with a hilariously unexpected punchline: “I don’t really miss my pops for real.” Discussing the album’s dark subject matter at home on his back porch, Ennals shrugs. “It’s gallows humor, I guess is what it’s called.”
Ravelomanana still seems a little exhausted from the “King Cobra” experience, unsure of how the world will receive the album. “Hangover, postpartum, I really don’t wanna keep making music anymore,” he says at one point, but later admits that he and Ennals do have ideas for a follow-up. “We’ve already structured very loosely what the next one is gonna be.”
In the meantime, he’s keeping busy with commissioned work, composing the first movement of an opera and scoring the NPR podcast Invisibilia, and dreaming of scoring films. But he’s anxious about getting “that magic” back and feeling so inspired that he can make something equivalent to one of his favorite albums, Portishead’s “Third.” “I feel like I have to really find it. I hope I do.”
Infinity Knives and Brian Ennals will perform Thursday night at The Metro Gallery. Information here.
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based freelance music and culture writer.