The concept of “instrumental grime” — and indeed “instrumental hip-hop” as whole — baffled me at first. I couldn’t understand why anyone, even the most talented producer, would want to deprive their tracks of the flow of an MC, which fills the space of hip-hop music and provides the focus of the songs. But of course, the advent of new technologies (notably laptops) and a fresh contextualisation of UK hip-hop, which is no longer only a vehicle for the voice of disaffected black youth but increasingly a realm favoured by hip white folks, means there is more room to explore the limits of grime, which, much as with rock, has perhaps inevitably led to a removal of vocals from the genre altogether.
The results are often mixed, the raw passion of a Flowdan, a Warrior Queen or a Spaceape stripped away leaving, even in the case of old hand Terror Danjah, a rather uncomfortable and repetitive austerity. It could simply be that not everyone’s a Kevin Martin, but I have long suspected, much like that bloke back in the 1950s who didn’t think much of rock’n’roll, so I’m likely incorrect — that instrumental grime is not a genre that will stick around for long.
That said, Liverpool’s Paul Lynch could be the guy to give it the much-needed injection of oomph. Lynch has been involved with grime pretty much since day one, and has developed into something of an authority on it via his Grimetapes blog and the Boxed crew. This wide-reaching, encyclopaedic knowledge therefore informs the entirety of Palm Tree Fire, making it a sort of journey across grime’s entire spectrum. You’d expect it therefore to be almost schizophrenically eclectic, but Lynch combines astute judgement with a remarkable melodic sensitivity.
At times, Palm Tree Fire feels like a journey through both space and time, starting with the muscular title track, which features gruff sampled male shouts, staccato beats and moody bass lines; and winding through 14 other vignettes before concluding with “Kit and Holly,” a peculiar (certainly un-grime), organic snippet dominated by xylophones sounds that could have been plucked from a children’s TV show, birdsong and atmospheric hesitant synths. The contrast between the opener’s macho swagger and the almost fragile textures on “Kit and Holly” could almost serve as a metaphor for Palm Tree Fire in its entirety.
Along the way, Slackk treats us to the entire panoply of grime’s various evolutions. Snares like machine gun fire rattle ominously at detached intervals under metronomic hi-hat bursts and see-sawing high-pitched synths on “Intercept” and “Jackal,” pulsating with futurist dystopianism. “Millipede” and “Three Kingdoms” are the epitome of the new sub-genre called “sinogrime” where synths that sound like they’ve been lifted from 80’s art-pop band Japan’s Tin Drum sway over analogue-sounding percussion that shifts in unpredictable tempos far removed from grime’s traditional full-on rhythmic assault. There’s even the occasional “eastern”-sounding wind instrument for good measure. “Sinogrime” is certainly an interesting proposition, as Fatima Al-Qadiri recently displayed on her Asiatisch album, but, in the hands of Westerners, it can quickly descend into bland formalism and vaguely coarse stereotyping. Lynch dodges that bullet on the lush “Three Kingdoms,” but “Millipede” is pretty dull.
It’s a rare thing, but Palm Tree Fire’s eclecticism proves to be a strength, as Lynch’s scattergun approach may be erratic, but when it hits the nail on the proverbial, the absence of MCs becomes as irrelevant as it would in any other genre of electronic music. “Bullfight” shares the title track’s aggressive rhythmic propulsion, even edging towards a form of industrial dance akin to Vatican Shadow (with whom Palm Tree Fire’s artwork shares a certain aesthetic). But the real triumphs are an involuntary triptych formed by “Crafty Tiger,” “Litherland” and “Puma Walk.” All three are dominated by mournful synth lines developing into crystalline melodic patterns, linking Lynch’s grime DNA (encapsulated by the juddering beats he deploys) with the more restrained pop of the early ’80s synth revolution. It’s not quite Duran Duran, rest assured, nor is it as austere as early Human League or Robert Rental, but there’s an emotional strain running through these three tracks. By extension, they carry the rest of Palm Tree Fire beyond mere genre exhibition and into something more personal and resonant.
Because I fell in love with grime through the clipped, punkish energy of Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner and Wiley’s Playtime is Over, I still find the absence of vocals on these tracks a bit disconcerting. But by maintaining a remarkable coherence over so many tracks and sub-genre shifts, Slackk demonstrates just what can be achieved in instrumental grime, taking it beyond the genre’s parameters and towards something more universal.