Of those artists dragging these reluctant instrumentals into the spotlight, there’s a spectrum: on the left, OGs like Terror Danjah and Swindle have grown out from under the rappers they began their careers alongside. On the right, there are innovators like Proc Fiskal, who’ve cherry-picked the genre’s hallmarks and spun their own warped hybrids.
Silk Road Assassins fall into the latter category. The three former music tech students were discovered by Planet Mu alumnus Kuedo, who was instrumental in getting them their first release on the label back in 2016. When asked about their influences, they cite video games and film soundtracks, not a youthful baptism in The Sound of the Streets. But sonically, their chilly brand of electronica references grime’s heritage with liberty and integrity. Debut LP State of Ruin is therefore a tale of two shades: dark, go-hard sub-shakers contrast with light ambient-ish works, showing the true capacity of grime’s aural ingredients.
At their gentlest, Silk Road Assassins make the kind of ‘IDM’ (for want of a better acronym) that artists like Secede and The Flashbulb were putting out in the noughties: that wave of super-melodic non-dance music assumedly fashioned to counter the ’90s’ preoccupation with breakcore. Were it not for the occasional slapping snares and walkie-talkie static, gorgeous “Bink” would conjure an enchanted forest, all globular synths and ping-pong keys. Elsewhere, “Saint” is a trappy delight of pitch-bent subs and fidgety percussion, and “Pulling the String” lets a bunch of delays and bitcrushers consume the mix to sumptuous effect.
But the trio really make their mark when they put their foot down. “Familiars” is probably the track most likely to rip up a dancefloor: with a classic lead that practically begs you to ‘put your hands in the air’, it clocks in at under three minutes and over 150 bpm. Vessel is a ride, too, pitting angel voices and starry mallets against gnarly Virus-esque synths, whilst Shadow Realm feat WWWIngs – a grooveless onslaught of stabs and sibilance – is the kind of heavy that might jar with those who prefer the album’s softer moments. We’re also treated to the instrumental of Taste of Metal, which shines when stripped of MC K9’s original a cappella.
Throughout, Silk Road Assassins plunder grime’s rich sonic tropes: State of Ruin makes discerning use of gun-shot percussion, smashed glass SFX, synths that parrot sirens, Eastern scales. There’s even a Metal Gear Solid sample that crops up on a number of tracks: Colonel Campbell’s faithful warning that the enemy are “heavily armed I’m afraid” . It’s a tiny detail that likely fell out of the producers’ love of video games, but in context it brings a smidgen of mixtape aesthetics to the LP.
All of this is done with a degree of clarity and control that reflects well on the trio’s working relationship. There is only one, refreshingly singular sound here: a reworking of grime’s core components that is never once overcomplicated or try-hard. And State of Ruin is as successful in embracing the genre’s menace as it is subverting it, revelling in the fist-pounding and neck-snapping as much as dream-like and beatless. All in all, a solid debut.