Outside the Box
Trying to sell rap/metal in 2016 seems like a lost cause, and for those who view their music through a critical lens, it’s probably an impossible task. If, like many metalheads, you prefer innovation to fun, you need not apply. If, however, you are looking for some of the most massive bangers you’ll hear all year, oh boy, are you in the right place. Hacktivist, the massive UK sensation who combines the local grime scene with a brand of metalcore that borrows very heavily from the UK tech-metal scene. Fellow Milton Keynes groups like Fellsilent, Heart of a Coward, and TesseracT are a huge sonic influences, with absolutely colossal riffs and twinkly atmospheric melodies aplenty. Their debut EP was a surprise hit and created quite a stir in the scene across the pond. However, nearly four years later, can the long-awaited full-length debut continue the group’s unexpected rise or showcase that rap/metal should stay dead?
Outside the Box is most surprising in how long it takes to fully unfold upon the listener. Despite some spectacularly massive grooves and bangers strewn about the record (“Deceive and Defy”, “No Way Back”, “Elevate”), initial listens may feel underwhelming because melody doesn’t seem far enough in the forefront. It’s a big problem with many modern tech metal (sure, “djent”) albums that bludgeon more than sooth. Hacktivist’s careful use of melody throughout (not just in the vocal department) is what makes this much more than just a shockingly successful rap/metal record 15 years after the sound’s expected expiration date. Just look at the record’s best one-two punch: “No Way Back” and “False Idols”. Both tracks do utilize Timfy James’ melodic singing to solid use; however, the interesting and heavy guitar parts are where the money is made here. The low-end is perfectly counterbalanced by neat little melodies throughout. The band utilizes their tech-metal influences and their associated low-end riffs as a substitute for hip hop’s traditional beats, and it works really well.
Joint MCs J Hurley and Ben Marvin trade barbs back and forth throughout, and while Hurley is a better rapper than Marvin, the latter’s anger works as a salve that soothes any concerns the listener. Switching between humble brags and more traditional grime topics (politics, social and economic issues), the lyrics can come across a bit disjointed. It would be easy to think “Hate” is about the massive amount of disgust humanity has for itself, yet the track is, unfortunately, an anthem against the band’s haters. What’s even odder about the song is how it’s both one of the album’s weaker and more interesting tracks. The song feels like a Tinie Tempah track, with an electronic beat before exploding in sonic rage. The chugging and lyrics are fairly sub-par, but “Hate” presents an interesting fusion of electro/grime/pop with metal that is quite interesting. The template for success is there, even if the band don’t stick the landing. To be fair, the other sonic experiment, “Taken”, works much better. The only other noteworthy disappointment is “Rotten”, and the less said about it the better.
Overall, despite a couple missteps, Hacktivist’s long-awaited debut is a rousing success. This is an album that, at almost every point, is a sonic joy. It’s clear the band are having a damn blast with the music, and that exuberance translates wonderfully throughout. Much like the best rap/metal of yesteryear, Hacktivist’s best attribute is an ability to take serious styles of music and make something that, despite the part-time serious subject matter, is, at its basest level, an absolute joy to listen to. It won’t win many critical awards, but, hot damn, this should be a blast in the live setting. (Nicholas Senior)