In the relatively short time that they’ve shared similar spaces, rock and grime have made for uncomfortable bedfellows, and what feels all the more galling is that it’s really only the rock side of the conversation that’s made that so. While the crossovers have been spares, grime’s embrace of rock has tended to yield some decent results regardless, whether that’s Dizzee Rascal’s embrace of the indie sound and culture over a decade ago, or Skepta’s twisting of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Regular John for Man in 2016. Flip that perspective though, and the closest thing to a wholly successful act has been Astroid Boys, a band whose roots are more connected to grime’s ideals anyway with rock influences bulking it out. Otherwise, a band like Hacktivist has done well for themselves, but it’s hard to think of any act on the spectrum of rock who’s managed to bring grime into their sound and preserve the sound to a noticeable degree. It’s why there was always going to be some buzz around PENGSHUi, for whom a lot of their narrative has surrounded their belief of grime being the new punk, and how they’ve tried to sonically split the difference between the two in a more concise way than most. It’s a commendable goal for a new band going into their debut album, and one that could have some real legs should PENGSHUi be able to pull it off on their very first attempt.
But unfortunately, and to be as blunt as possible, that’s not what this album is. If anything, the well of grime that PENGSHUi are drawing from is one of its most dated and clumsy to date; it’s telling that the grime presences on this album are Newham Generals’ Footsie and Foreign Beggars’ Orifice Vulgatron, two artists for whom their reverberations can still be felt in the modern scene, but have generally been lapped by a sharper and more impactful sound. And that’s largely where PENGSHUi fall in this conversation, drawing from a branch of the genre that has a very limited scope with what it can achieve today, and executed with a rock core that’s even more narrow again. The energy is definitely there, but rarely does it come across as exciting as it should, and for an album that’s supposed to be on the cutting edge of the crossover, PENGSHUi come across as more stagnant than anything.
That’s largely a factor of their instrumental pool being as frankly shallow as it is. This is a band without a guitarist, and so when everything is constructed from drums, blown-out bass and overlaid production, there’s not a whole lot of flexibility among that. As for that production, a couple of cool peppered moments like glassy synth clinks on Wickedest Ones isn’t nearly enough to redeem some incredibly tired and overweight choices. The decision to lean into bass-boosted dubstep quakes on Blame and Leave It really hems PENGSHUi in with regards to how far they can really go and places a firm cap on how contemporary this can all be, and while the rowdiness on Nobody Cares and No Joke is definitely more appealing (primarily because vocalist Illaman is clearly having the time of his life on these tracks and there’s a tremendous amount of infectiousness there), there’s not a lot of wiggle room when it comes to differentiating one idea from the next. For as much as volume and raucousness as clearly PENGSHUi’s primary musical objectives, there has to be some degree of nuance and depth there to keep it moving; they unequivocally achieve both of things across the board, but when that comes alongside what’s effectively the same musical idea being recycled track after track, the band start to look incredibly one-dimensional.
And that’s even without touching on the writing, primarily being locked to inflating PENGSHUi’s swagger and posturing as much as possible and running away with it. To be fair, that is on the back of a wealth of charisma and a freewheeling charm that’s without a doubt the band’s greatest asset, and at the same time, each track does move along at a brisk enough pace to avoid too much stagnation. But again, PENGSHUi aren’t really showing a lot of themselves here, to the point where when Blame and Rise do look to foster a sense of mobility and social consciousness, the idea isn’t lingered on for too long before snapping back to a fairly default setting. Even Footsie and Orifice Vulgatron feel bizarrely anonymous on their guest spots, and that further minimises what PENGSHUi actually have at their disposal.
It’s their greatest limitation as a band at this point, and while they’ve established a solid baseline for themselves on this album, doing nothing to build upon that and simply going forward with what’s already there doesn’t achieve much. This sort of loud, raucous music will probably go down better live where the full extent of PENGSHUi’s chaos can be appreciated, but right now, there’s not much to say about this debut that, in turn, doesn’t offer a lot. It’s distinct, sure, but it’s also overly repetitive and dated at that, and the ideas that PENGSHUi do have don’t facilitate much in the way of change at this point in time. It’s going to take a pretty major knuckling down to turn PENGSHUi into the force they’ve been so readily tipped to be, lest they end up as simply another footnote in the tumultuous history of rap-rock that already has its fair share of missed opportunities.
For fans of: Astroid Boys, Hacktivist, Black Futures
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘PENGSHUi’ by PENGSHUi is released on 21st February on MVKA Records.