Now that grime has become a much more visible form of music, the discussion about whether it really is the new punk definitely holds more weight, a genre that ultimately represents a progressive ethos running in tandem to the mainstream, but remaining a symbol of a counterculture of sorts even when it does cross over. It makes sense that the rock world has begun co-opting it with acts like Hacktivist and, to a lesser extent, Enter Shikari, taking similar flows and aggression that would frequently be associated with rock music and feeding it back in for a decisively 21st Century sound. Astroid Boys have always been a more complicated case than that though, arguably drawing far more on grime and UK hip-hop than rock, though have always been a perennial presence on the fringes of UK hardcore. That alone shows the gap between more underground rock and grime is at least narrow enough to be bridged, and if there’s going to be a band to do it, few have been as thorough as Astroid Boys.
While that might be the case, an album like Broke feels less like an attempt at closing that gap, and more of an attempt to revitalise grime by taking it in a heavier, harder-edged direction. It’s why, when guitars do show up, they’re primarily there to open and close certain phrases to build up that tension rather than drive it. It’s why Dirt feels slightly shaky on that front, with a groove that’s definitely propulsive, but dips too readily into easily-established rap-rock tones rather than the sound that Astroid Boys have forged all for themselves. On the whole though, Broke‘s use of grime instrumentation with only a rock garnish works a lot more than it doesn’t, like the cold, warping synths on Ghost that already has an air of menace that the thuds of guitar only intensify, or the drippy, bass-heavy beats of Cheque and Free that have the sense of aggression that grime is known for. For a band who’ve cut their teeth within the hardcore scene, a lot of this album sees Astroid Boys adopting more of a “pure” grime sound than would be expected, but with the heavier fragments as crucial as they are, not to mention MCs Benji and Traxx having a Welsh twang that’s not too thick but definitely noticeable, Broke maintains its own individuality far better than some other grime artists have fared.
That proves to be an invaluable asset as well as, even right down its core, Broke has all the hallmarks of a fairly standard grime album. Especially from a thematic perspective, no new ground is being broken here, largely centering in Astroid Boys’ braggadocious posturing and rags to (almost) riches story, but where it proves to be a cut above is in the details, facing classist government and media demonisation on Kill, and a dualistic relationship with their hometown, knowing that it’s necessary to leave to break out and make music a viable full-time prospect (Soonish), but with a level of local notoriety (Free) and an appreciation for their roots that so many of their friends have abandoned (Lost) that keeps them grounded. Even thematically, Astroid Boys strive to take a typical genre template, but adapt it to fit their own needs, something that’s done to an extent that makes Broke feel fresher than it reasonably is.
It definitely helps that this is as enjoyable a listen as it is. Astroid Boys’ hardcore influence emerges more in their energy, and on tracks like Razz or Money (a second attempt at the guitar-driven style that’s far superior), there’s the sort of bounce and aggression that’s always been a bullseye for both hardcore and grime. And yet, for as much Broke’s alpha swagger does for it, an album like this lives and dies of the quality of its MCs, and both Benji and Traxx have the sort of fantastically tight, charismatic flows that balance bravado, humour and social commentary almost perfectly. Even with the stigma surrounding these sorts of crossover albums where at least one crucial factor is cut back to both ends, there’s nothing like that here; particularly in its closing moments with the sub-two-minute Dazed and the title track, both pitched against airy, gentle swells that are a far cry from how hard-hitting this album is in its best moments, there’s a technicality that few in the rock sphere can even come close to.
But ultimately – as has been said numerous times in this review alone – Broke isn’t a rock album, rather a grime album proactively brought forward to try and give rock its swagger and edge back. And if, off the back of this, Astroid Boys do continue to be embraced within those circles, that’s only a good thing, as Broke is the sort of incendiary, crucially modern project that’s well and truly needed. Whether Astroid Boys will be the ones to unite the two camps for good remains to be seen, but for what has been a long time coming, an album has crossed over into the rock world with the firepower to potentially make some huge changes down the line.
For fans of: Hacktivist, Skepta, JME
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Broke’ by Astroid Boys is out now on Music For Nations