Outside The Box
4th March 2016 - UNFD/Rise Records
01. Our Time (feat. Marlon Hurley)
03. Deceive And Defy (feat. Jamie Graham)
04. Taken (feat. Rou Reynolds)
05. The Storm
06. No Way Back
07. False Idols
08. Rotten (feat. Astroid Boys & Jot Maxi)
10. Outside The Box
12. The Storm II
Hacktivist are a phenomenon; this much is inarguable. Since dropping their debut EP (for the first time) all the way back in 2012, they have been a near constant presence on the small venue circuit, the festival circuit and – increasingly – tacked on to high profile tours with bigger artists, building a reputation for incendiary performances most bands would kill their bass player for. New recorded material, save for the occasional single, has been conspicuous by its absence since then, but four long years later the wait is over and we have a full length, Outside The Box, to digest.
If you have been living under a particularly sturdy rock for the last few years and have missed out on Hacktivist’s exploits to date, don’t worry – they’ll tell you about them. At length. Self-referential and self-aggrandising enough to make anyone other than Kanye blush, reminding the listener both how great they are and how much fun they are having are almost more common themes than the ham-fisted social commentary of the debut EP.
Literally from the first sentence of the first track they are congratulating listeners from stepping away from the spoon-fed mainstream – at a point in history when doing so has never been easier. Not only that, but they still insist that they are in some way pioneering, when colliding rap with metal, sprinkling some political awareness on top and serving it up at energetic live shows is something bands like One Minute Silence were doing at least fifteen years ago. Whatever qualities Hacktivist may possess, originality is not one of them – even if the backlash against nineties rap metal was so severe in the noughties that an entire generation has grown up almost completely oblivious to it.
Another repeated theme is the simple fact that some people don’t like them very much. It shouldn’t be a tremendous surprise. When nu metal was taking the world by storm, the howls of outrage were every bit as loud as the squeals of delight, but Hacktivist are so perplexed that they devote the entirety of the first full track, to their ‘haters’, and mention them again elsewhere. They devote so much time and effort to professing that they don’t give a shit about the negative comments that it gives the impression that they give a massive shit about them.
And there are perfectly legitimate reasons to dislike Hacktivist. Most pressingly, irrespective of how exciting it might be to bounce around in a sweaty venue to these songs, taken out of that live context, the flimsiness of the songwriting screams as loudly as their boasts of success. For an album that has been four years in the making, an alarming number of the tracks sound like they were written in a tremendous hurry. With riffs relying heavily on hammer-ons, open-string crunch, unspectacular chord progressions and the de rigeur Milton Cleans, the new songs have a pointed absence of subtlety or flair, like a school project largely written the night before it was due to be handed in.
The decision to hyper-downtune the bass as well as the guitar has made Josh Gurner‘s presence virtually obsolete.His entire contribution is reduced to a virtually atonal, amorphous rumble. The drums, too, are unimaginitive at best, rendering Hacktivist’s rhythm section as more of a sideshow rather than the engine room of the groove. Outside The Box feels largely as though more time was spent dialing in the perfect tone on Timfy James‘ guitar than on the entire bass and drum parts combined.
These problems are only compounded by the vapidity of the lyrics, and their two-dimensional delivery. Mainman J Hurley‘s machine gun technique is, again, superficially engaging – but the recording lays bare every dubious rhyme and clunky line, over-stuffed with syllables and sounding like a first draft. There is little recognisable interplay between the music and the vocals, feeling like they were written separately, unceremoniously smashed together.
Not only that, but the guest appearance of Heart of a Coward‘s Jamie Graham on “Deceive and Defy” painfully highlights how, despite screaming onstage almost every night, Ben Marvin‘s bellowing is still alarmingly weak. Indeed, it’s in the guest appearances by Rou Reynolds of Enter Shikari and The Astroid Boys elsewhere that one finds the most vocal dexterity. Some of Ben’s lyrics, too, are notable for the wrong reasons. For example:
“There comes a time in life
When someone wants you by their side
I need you to keep that strong
And though they fall but we are one
There will be a time
When everything’s fine or so it seems
Left with memories
Holding on to dreams”
Each line in isolation hits the right sentiment, but taken together they look less like heartfelt profundity and more like an almost random collection of ‘inspirational’ poster quotes – which neatly sums up Hacktivist as a whole; behind a thin veneer of immediacy and a fancy dress costume of defiance lies…not very much at all, really. The emperor may well be wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, but other than that he is uncomfortably naked.
Perhaps this feels like an incredibly long review for a substantially less than enjoyable album. Perhaps it might be tempting to write all this off as yet more ‘hate’, but hatred is a strong term, and – in this instance – an inaccurate one. A much closer emotion would be frustration, or maybe exasperation. Through luck or judgement, Hacktivist have hit upon a sound that strikes an (open) chord with disaffected youth, but then this wonderful platform is squandered by the thoughtlessness of the material.
Go and see them live, and they’re sure to show you a good time, but the weakness of the songs on record is inescapable after a couple of listens. Together with the fact that, filler interludes aside, the band have barely managed to write fifteen songs in five years, we are left with an uncomfortable conclusion: that other than the half hour they spend on stage every night, Hacktivist have entirely neglected the need to develop their art. It’s clear they’ve had a lot of fun living the dream, but that has come at the expense of producing music that lives up to the hype, which – fatally – they seem to believe themselves.
This is a terrible pity, but not grounds for hate.