Hiraki’s quest for perfect ugliness

When an album titled “Stumbling Through The Walls” by a band called Hiraki landed in the Good because Danish inbox, I almost marked it as spam. It is so unlike everything that usually circulates in the Danish scene, I assumed that another American band had sent us their music without bothering to read the website’s name. “Stumbling Through The Walls” is a noisy and aggressive record that doesn’t care about growing on you. It consumes, dominates, and demands that its message be heard loud and clear: the world is fucked up and we are complicit. Oh, and it is indeed authored by a three-piece from Aarhus.

“We try so hard not to sound like other Danish bands,” admits Tue Schmidt Rasmussen, Hiraki’s guitarist, when I share my initial confusion over Zoom. Those of us in the media love to find similarities, to compare, to analyse music and its origins. If that’s the case, “Stumbling Through The Walls” saw music writers and critics scratch their heads. The band neither imitates, nor emulates their most-cited influences: Daughters, Converge, The Body, Street Sects. There is no consensus on the genre, either. Hiraki have been called synth punk, noise rock, industrial or progressive punk so many times that those labels barely retain any meaning. But, perhaps, it’s not that the Danish trio operates in some obscure subgenre, it’s just that they have created something different. Something that hints at all of those styles but resides in none. And, if anything, they enjoy these attempts at being categorised. “It’s interesting to see which genre people hear as the most present in our music,” Rasmussen ponders. “We constantly see reviews where people refer to bands they think we are inspired by, but I have never heard of these bands. But it means I can go and check them out, and most are really nice.”

Hiraki members took the long way en route to the more extreme fringes of the music scene. None of them has formal musical education; vocalist Jon Gotlev is a visual artist, guitarist Tue Schmidt Rasmussen studied journalism, and drummer Tim Frederiksen has a degree in digital design. While Rasmussen describes himself as the most “classic rock type”, Frederiksen as a child only wanted to listen to Eurodance, like Aqua. When Gotlev’s and Rasmussen’s former rock band Liserstille hit a period of inactivity, they decided to start something new with Frederiksen, who formulated the idea of “a band doing wild music.” The name originates from the Danish word “hierarki” (hierarchy), with some letters removed for the aesthetic effect. “We wanted to crank the distortion pedal and see how we, with our different minds, can create music that is unlike anything we have heard before, Rasmussen says of the band’s vision.

While heavy music gets unfairly dismissed and stereotyped, a study by The University of Queensland reveals that it helps process and regulate anger, sadness, anxiety, and ultimately enhance positive emotions. In short, even the best pop song can’t fix the worst feelings, but the right –core track just might. Of course, that is not a sentiment shared by many, and not by Rasmussen’s 85-year-old grandmother. “It reminds me of a cold winter night, where I can hear a fox screaming,” she commented on “Wonderhunt”, confused about why anyone would listen to something so harsh and chaotic. “It’s funny, because I’ve spent 20 years exploring music, but for her, Hiraki is the most extreme she’s ever heard, Rasmussen explains with an understanding smile.

In any case, “Stumbling Through The Walls” still beats many of its contemporaries at capturing the attention of people who don’t normally listen to heavy stuff. While Hiraki push this epic music as far as it can go, the album retains a strong emotional core. Cascading synths and drum crescendos emphasise Gotlev’s screaming about our moral decay so precisely that you hardly need to understand the words to feel their intensity. As expected of such music, it addresses the faults of the modern world, subjects that can be difficult to talk about, without dwelling too much on specific events. “The world is crazy,” Frederiksen sums up, “but at least there’s a lot of material to write music about.”

“Common Fear” opens the LP with a desperate call to action: “To all the future gens / Don’t let bygones be bygones / Forget not what’s easily forgotten / Tilt the structure.” Frederiksen is especially proud of this track, featuring Cara Drolshagen of the American hardcore punk collective The Armed. “It’s almost like an art piece at a museum,” he describes, “you have no idea what you’re looking at but are somehow drawn to it. I think Hiraki can be very good at making stuff that you stop and think about. I know it’s a stupid example, but take a punk song where the lyrics are ‘fuck George Bush.’ You can stop and think about that, but the thinking process would be very short. You know what the song is about. That’s totally different with ‘Common Fear.'”

The record is most personal to Hiraki’s vocalist Jon Gotlev, who wrote all the lyrics. Described by his bandmates as “very normal” and “not troubled”, Gotlev is perfectly aware of the society’s shortcomings as well as his own. It doesn’t have to be large-scale injustice, anything goes. “When I look at my phone 30 times an hour, I don’t recognise the problem but he sees that I’m addicted, the drummer explains. “It’s mostly everyday problems we talk about, we just take them to another level and shout about them.”

While Hiraki’s 2017 debut “Modern Genes” was rushed by the band’s need for audio — all the drums were recorded in one day — they took their time calibrating “Stumbling Through The Walls”. “We want to sound very ugly, Frederksen admits. “It’s very hard to perfect ugliness. We couldn’t tweak a lot, because we would remove it.” But with all the intended ugliness, every track is lovingly crafted, and its lack of musical pretense makes “Stumbling Through The Walls” a truly enjoyable listen.

Hiraki are signed with the US-based Nefarious Industries, a label that takes pride in showcasing “the most adventurous and least commercially viable artists,” according to its website. “It’s frightening sometimes how seriously they take it,” Rasmussen says of the difference between the American and Danish music business. The so-called Janteloven in Scandinavia defines a social code with an emphasis on collective achievements over personal ambitions. In that context, music can be seen as something people do on the side, with non-mainstream Danish bands struggling to even take themselves seriously. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the American grandiose thinking. “For Nefarious, none of this is just for fun, it’s serious business, Rasmussen says. “My grandmother would like to hear that Hiraki is what I do for fun while I still have a day job. Nefarious couldn’t care less about our fucking day jobs, for them this is everything.”

The prospect of another concertless summer did not discourage the trio from the album release. Hiraki are more than just a live band. Though they enjoy the roar of the crowd, they are more concerned with adding something valuable to the scene. And, if the pandemic has had any positive impact on the industry, it probably gave people more space to dive into music outside their comfort zone, which makes it a good time for a band like this. There was a whole page about us in a local newspaper,” Rasumssen says, a note of surprise in his voice. “In normal circumstances, that would never have happened. That page would have been dedicated to the Mamma Mia musical.”

When I ask about Hiraki’s plans for the future, they are clearly just glad to savour the present and celebrate this milestone. “Stumbling Through The Walls” is ready to get its own life. In the process, there will be more curious guesses about its roots and meanings. People will recall more genres to fit this LP. Some will be repulsed by it. Others will see beauty emerge from something not classically beautiful. In any case, Hiraki are an igniting band that succeeds where others fail to stir up any emotion apart from indifference. “It would be unfair to neglect how much it means for us to finally get the album out, Rasumssen concludes. “I think we deserve to just say ‘listen to this’ and let people do it, hear their reactions, talk about the album and discuss it. We want to take some time to let it breathe, while we also breathe.”

Stumbling Through The Walls” by Hiraki is out now.


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