Veteran cult artist Cage has long had one foot in the world of Eastern Conference and the other in the overlapping but distinct universe of Definitive Jux. El-P's hipster-friendly imprint has risen to underground fame by fusing the abrasive, aggressive, confrontational aesthetic of early Public Enemy with a downtown N.Y. bohemian indie-rock vibe, whereas Eastern Conference's primary creative directive seems to be perfecting the art of the dick joke. Cage has released a number of albums on Eastern Conference, including Nighthawks, Leak Bros., and Smut Peddlers supergroup collaborations, and his uneven but intermittently brilliant solo debut Movies For The Blind. He's also a member of Definitive Jux supergroup The Weathermen, alongside heavyweights like El-P and Vast Aire. Boy, for an angry iconoclast, he sure does have a lot of friends. Now with his buzzed-about new Definitive Jux solo debut Hell's Winter, he disses his old label and pledges allegiance to Definitive Jux. In return, El-P has thrown him quite the coming-out party, complete with indie-rock-friendly guests like Jello Biafra, Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, and producers RJD2 and El-P himself.
Whether pumping out product for Definitive Jux or Eastern Conference, Cage picks relentlessly at the psychic scabs of a childhood characterized by a mental-hospital stint, child abuse, and an early initiation into the world of hard drugs. But while Cage raps about the same subject matter on each of his albums, the context and meaning shift radically. Where Cage's early albums treat drugs, fucked-up relationships, violence, and familial dysfunction as an elaborate sick joke, on Hell's Winter, he switches from scatological comedy to scabrous tragedy with harrowing but morbidly compelling results. "Good Morning" kicks the album off with a massive cleansing dose of El-P's electrified post-apocalyptic boom-bap before "Too Heavy For Cherubs" slides hypnotically back into the world of childhood trauma. Cage lets his childhood demons run wild on songs like "Stripes," perpetually reliving the agony of his upbringing on a constant distorted loop. "Perfect World" is Definitive Jux's warped take on glossy dance rap, while "Scenester" shifts Cage's merciless, unpitying gaze from his own tormented psyche to the fairer sex, providing a lacerating character study of a hipster in the midst of a bleak downward emotional spiral. Easily the most cohesively grim album of Cage's career, Hell's Winter is strong stuff, feel-bad music that bleeds and aches.