Highly anticipated, Outside The Box has either been a long time coming or put out in the blink of an eye, depending on your perspective. For this Throwback Thursday we take a trip to earlier in the year to look at one of our highlight albums of 2016.
Upon their conception, Hacktivist’s widespread success was all but instant; existing relationships with the industry built by Timfy James and Ben Marvin (guitarist and vocalist respectively) through the lifespan of previous projects. Combined with their fresh, individual and of-the-moment sound allowed them to tap into existing fan-bases – like that of repeated touring buddies and fellow genre-benders Enter Shikari – and become a worldwide sensation in just a few short months. What this has meant though is that the Milton Keynes five-piece have been touring the world on just a handful of tracks (including a cover, albeit a good one) for almost five years. Comparatively, the journey from band conception to album release has happened at light-speed, but in the eyes of fans, this is a record long overdue. So, does it meet expectations?
The joy of early tracks ‘Cold Shoulders’ and self-titled ‘Hacktivist’ was the deep and unruly engagement with technical metal; its irregularity and lack of conventional structure. Onward, and EP staples ‘Unlike Us’ and ‘Elevate’ proved and cemented Hacktivist’s worth as a band – that they could make it work, that it was more than a fleeting experiment. One would hope then, as ever with new and exciting music, that they have found a happy medium, tempering the unpredictability of early releases with the more melodic elements of the EP. We shall see.
Opening track ‘Our Time’ immediately highlights a problem I feel needs addressing. Hacktivist, in the name they’ve chosen and the subject matter they have decided to approach have, however loosely, set themselves up as a political band. The delightfully dystopian album artwork promises to follow this up, and even the name implies a certain anti-authoritative grumble. The album then opens with a tonal lead-in and speech-poem not unlike that of Enter Shikari’s 2009 album, Common Dreads. Hacktivist’s political nuance though has always felt slightly arbitrary: the music and lyrics buck and rage, but in a formless, almost juvenile way. ‘Our Time’ exemplifies this – the vocals have the shape of something political, but the words lack substance and definition. The drop at 1:08 brings us our first taste of the monstrous, percussive thumping that we all came for.
Second track ‘Hate’ immediately leads us in a different direction, opening on a cold, almost medical electronic part. The djent-style instrumental that comes in to join it is almost solely percussive, and no warmer. The lyrics are strangely defensive; reaction to criticism which, as far as we can tell, doesn’t really exist.
Initial thoughts on this album, having listened up to 2:23 of the second track, are that it lacks heart. There’s lots of shouting, plenty of defiance and an abundance of satisfying guitar-drum noise, but there’s been nothing much in the way of melody and no choruses or hooks to speak of. Music has to offer something – to have some attitude. And style doesn’t equal attitude.
‘Deceive and Defy’ was released as a single a while back now, in short, it’s really good. In the vein of bangers ‘Unlike Us’ and ‘Elevate’, it’s melodic and has a decent chorus which lends it some depth. It’s also got a guest vocalist in the form of Jamie Graham – vocalist for Timfy’s previous band, tech-metal heroes Heart Of A Coward. It’s a decent addition; sometimes metal needs dirty vocals and while Marvin puts in a decent effort, Graham’s fuller growls definitely fill this track out.
Next on the list in ‘Taken’, which scores points just for having Enter Shikari’s Rou Reynolds on it. This track feels more subdued, with a slight departure from the djenty instrumentals that have defined Hacktivist’s sound so far. Until the verse arrives that is, where everything lurches into a jumpy staccato accompanied and validated by some very tight vocal work from the bands primary rapper J Hurley. It’s unclear quite what he’s on about, but it sounds fantastic.
‘The Storm’ serves as an interlude, following on nicely from ‘Taken’s hushed finish and allowing us a brief moment of calm in what has been, if nothing else, a squall of an album up to this point. Much needed rest – enjoy it while it lasts.
‘False Idols’ is another one that’s been about for a bit, we’re more than halfway through the album and this is the first we’ve heard of Timfy’s clean vocals. It’s like a balm to the eardrums and it makes the heavy drop that follows it – not dissimilar from anything else on the album – exciting and satisfying, turning this section of the album’s low-end thudding into a song.
‘Rotten’ featuring Astroid Boys and Jot Maxi is a track we’ve been really looking forward to. Jot’s a talented MC who’s done some really cool, alternative stuff. Is it a good track though? Well yeah, actually. Stylistic differences definitely bring something new to an album that has, so far, been, for want of a better word, and more commas, samey. This track’s got a chorus and everything, and a less-noisy instrumental means we can really pay attention to the lyricism on display, some of which is really good. The problem though is that mechanised percussion and bass essentially remove Hacktivist-the-band from the equation, creating the feeling that actually ‘Rotten’ is a kind of outsourced guest-bit, and not part of the album it serves to liven-up at all.
Next up we’ve got a re-recorded ‘Elevate’. It’s at once thumpier, cleaner and looser than the original EP version. I think it might be sick. This song has some soul – something that Outside the Box has been lacking. The guitar part in particular feels organic and enthusiastic, and everything wrong with this album is highlighted in one fell swoop. This song combines the finest things Hacktivist have to offer – Timfy’s voice, fantastic technical guitar playing and strong vocal performances – and brings them all together, showing us how disjointed and cobbled-together other areas of this record have been.
Final track ‘The Storm II’ brings Timfy’s spectacular vocals to the fore again, and it’s genuinely fantastic. It’s like Hacktivist decided their USP was putting rap-djent front and centre and forgot about songwriting and singing, which, regardless of genre or non-genre or genre-bending or whatever we’re doing here, will always be such a crucial part of writing decent rock music. Let Timfy sing guys! Or make him sing! Whatever.
In the end then, there are some great songs on this album, and realistically the whole thing will sound great live; it’s an out-and-out audial assault. But you can’t say audial without saying ordeal, which unfortunately is just as true. The standout performances were mostly by the guest vocalists (and I’m including Timfy within that) and there are moments when rapper Hurley shines. All in all though, there are actually disappointingly few new songs on this record, and some of them just don’t make the cut.
It’s hit and miss. I’ll definitely listen to some of the songs again – they’ve nailed it in places – but whether or not I’ll ever make it through the whole album again remains to be seen.