[Self-Released; 2012]

In a little over a year Mike Volpe, aka Clams Casino has gone from the best kept secret in internet-based hip-hop production sorcery to major label-adorned A-lister. At least as a critical presence. I can’t help but view Clams’ newest release, the free Instrumental Mixtape 2, as a neatly symmetrical bookend at one end of the fourteen month span that began with the New Jersey-based producer’s first free tape. Each track on the new tape still includes the bracketed rapper who ultimately ended up claiming the beat and a couple artists who proved to be the most prominent on Instrumental Mixtape remain ever present on 2: Lil B and Main Attrakionz. But aside from Volpe’s own consistent knack for operatic, high-emotion bangers, a further focused production style, an excellent Tri Angle EP, and his general prolificness, Clams Casino owes a lot of his prominence to A$AP Rocky’s debut, LiveLoveA$AP (and vice versa).

Volpe seems to acknowledge A$AP as the elephant in the room by knocking out the first three productions he contributed to LiveLoveA$AP (“Palace”, “Bass”, “Wassup”) at the beginning of Instrumental Mixtape 2 as the first three tracks. More than a few people in my general social network ecosystem were quick to mention (or complain) how overfamiliar these tracks now are. It’s true, one of the few reasons I was quick to take to LiveLoveA$AP when it was initially released was because of Clams’ presence, so all three tracks I’ve heard enough for A$AP’s aloof flow to follow the now stripped beats in aural ghost form. At least at first. Because, yes, when that first descending sub-bass tone opens the mixtape at the beginning of “Palace” it’s hard not to prepare for the New Yorker’s voice to follow, but, as it was with the first tape – in fact, what made it so revelatory – is that Volpe is just as good, if not better, without an MC to otherwise obfuscate the intricacies of his productions. “Palace” is especially excellent without a voice astride it. It’s syncopated, purposeful sense of pace seems to hang in spurts of a timeless, dystopic magic-hour haze, each snare impact playing tension-release games between a crashing chorus of smokey voices.

Past the first three tracks most of the rest of Instrumental Mixtape 2 is new to me. Clams’  production style lends itself to a bedrock, set-in-stone kind of feel. There’s not a lot of wiggle room to debate, as a listener, where these songs might have diverged from where we find them and as such it’s almost moot to compare one mixtape to the other. But I will say, 2 feels like a complete document whereas the first tape dipped a little near its middle. Otherwise, trying to decide if “Motivation” is a better cut than “Palace” isn’t perhaps the best use of our time. 2 is unequivocally excellent.

The other track I recognized as the mixtape was initially loaded into my iTunes was “The Fall”, which appeared on The Weeknd’s gorgeous final release of last year, Echoes Of Silence. But the track is marked with “original mix” in parentheses and it’s almost unrecognizable in comparison to the version that ended up in The Weeknd’s hands. Instead of a jagged, sticky slap bass riff and marching percussion, we get a reverent, shuddering chime sample echoing downward forever – chunks of an abandoned cityscape slipping like dead skin into the ocean – while a deep, booming vocal sample fades into darkness. “Human” is the only unreleased track included on the tape. The track is all squishy, warped vocals and spaghetti western-ish guitar. Both songs are early highlights, and both are structured in that prototypical Clams Casino style without at all feeling like rehashes.

2 also includes a few remixes, a couple of which made the rounds earlier this year such as Washed Out’s “Amor Fati”, which gets turned into a squelching low-energy 4/4 warble, and Lana Del Rey’s “Born To Die”, which also gets rendered unrecognizable, rearranged into mechanical puffs of noir-ish smoke and isolated, hollowed-out percussion intricacies before exploding into squalling white noise. The two Lil B-proffered productions are late standouts. “Unchain Me” circles around a lush lullaby chorus and a screaming-to-the-heavens rock vocal sample and the Imogen Heap-sampling “I’m God” sounds like something off AraabMusik’s Electronic Dream from the last year, it’s bit crushed vocals and tightened, submerged bass driving like electric guitars.

Instrumental Mixtape 2 almost feels like a foregone conclusion. It’s just a rich as last year’s free release, if not more so. Clams Casino continues to build his dynasty as one of the best and most uniquely defined producers working out of a number of different camps (Lil B, A$AP, Tri Angle). Despite his fingerprints reaching artists, essentially, across the continent, he remains completely isolated and actively felt in his own work. That he can release a mixtape of beats others have already ransacked, yet listeners can derive a wholly different experience from it is a little crazy. 2 finds Volpe further sharpening his very-identifiable style as well as broadening with tracks like “Kissing on My Syrup” and “Unchain Me”. If these mixtapes become an annual thing, it’ll be a neat little way of checking in on the realtime evolution of one of the most compelling producers currently at work. We can only hope.