Hip-hop with live instruments is something of a Catch-22. For all the rock-centrist credibility a group gains from playing "real" instruments, there are inherent limits that come from doing away with samples, turntables and drum machines. Local quintet Illphonics fights a good fight, with four tight instrumentalists backing up emcee Larry "Fallout" Morris, and the band's latest EP shows its proficiency at taking these songs to a streamlined, jazz-fusion territory; slow down the BPM and strip away the vocals, and you're left with smooth grooves and arena-rock guitar solos. But the limitations of the band's sound lend a sameness across these five tracks. Drummer Chaz Brew creates nuanced but forceful beats, while keyboardist Keith Moore favors ambience-creating synth pads to allow Kevin Koehler to endlessly solo in the background. This arrangement gives opening cut "One Life to Live" appropriate gravity as Morris shares biographical verses of struggle and perseverance. As the guitar solo and piano coda converge in the songs final moments, it feels like Rocky Balboa should be ascending some gritty flight of stairs — it's a moment of triumph for a band bent on making strong, positive and consciousness-raising music.
But this sort of crescendo-building begins to wear after a while, and the formula, tempo and mood undergo very few tweaks throughout Reality: Check. Lyrically, Morris strives for a better, smarter world but uses that stance to take shots at image-conscious hip-hop acts ("Arrogant Mannequins") and the wrong-headed "Attack of the Groupies" — are we to believe that this band has women just throwing themselves at its members? You can't start a revolution without knocking down some false idols, but Morris' quick and aggressive delivery sounds better preaching positivity than spewing vitriol. Luckily the EP ends on a high note, with "Sound: Check" flipping the band's usual groove into something a bit more laid-back, with Simon Chervitz's bass giving a bit more slap and bounce in the mix. For his part, Morris uses the song to tout his band's strength and ability. Bravado is nothing new in hip-hop, but it's a good fit for Illphonics.