Review: Sd Laika – That’s Harakiri

Sd Laika’s reemergence is a compelling and emphatic one, but it might not really be a return so to speak. Comprising of unreleased material created before conception of the album itself, That’s Harakiri is only the second release of Peter Runge, who’d first surfaced as Sd Laika with the Unknown Vectors EP for Visionist’s Lost Codes imprint back in 2012. Since then, we’ve seen grime revive itself into a genre of several generations with a myriad of strains, due in no small part to the efforts of Visionist amongst others. Between maturing club nights and war dub phenomenons, concept albums and entanglements with dubstep inter alia, there’s no doubt about the vibrant health of grime both in the UK and beyond its borders. Based on the eastern side of Wisconsin (as opposed to say, East London), Runge has appeared inactive since his debut release, save for the Idiot Thug mix foreshadowing That’s Harakiri. For all that can be said about grime’s development, there’s been little experimentation on the foundation laid by Runge during his period of absence, and That’s Harakiri is the first to really dig deeper into that niche of grime’s experimental untapped potential. It comes by way of Tri Angle Records, a label that’s seemed to constantly reinvent itself, most recently in a darker, more demented form courtesy of Evian Christ’s Waterfall EP, though That’s Harakiri is perhaps their most turbulent entry yet.

Harakiri is a form of ritual suicide that stems from samurai honour code, known more commonly as seppuku in its country of origin, Japan. The procedure generally involves the subject slicing open their innards in a kneeling position, often with a skilled and trusted aide standing by to perform a decapitating coup de grâce, though it’s known for things other than its gruesome severity; traditionally, honour is paramount in Japanese culture and the largely historic form of suicide is meant to preserve that honour, or to mitigate the shame of any wrongdoing. It’s also known for the precision and steadfastness it takes to complete properly – aspects such as making sure one keels over forwards in death by folding the sleeves under the knees, not crying out in pain and having a clean-cut beheading are all as much a part of the ritual as the death itself. Runge’s album resonates with some of these principles quite resolutely: That’s Harakiri really is Runge disembowelling his ideas onto the record, and its relentless pandemonium is meticulously measured with the compulsion of a Chaotic Neutral. It’s an album that balances the dichotomy of graceful discordance and savage obligation as harakiri itself. The crux of seppuku, however, is its function of securing one’s own legacy, an act of finality. As such, Runge’s resurrection may well be for the purpose of setting his own affairs straight once and for all; he’s delivering an album, built from fragments of a distant past, perhaps as a resignation of Runge as we know him.

The somewhat ironically named “Peace” with its distorted grime strings gives us a taste early on of the undertones of horror and tension that run through the album. But even at that, you don’t actually need to dive into the music to get a sense of what That’s Harakiri is about: “Great God Pan” is named after the Arthur Machen book which is the most obvious nod to the art of the horror novel. The whole album does have a sense of Lovecraft about it by creating a threatening, immediate and tense atmosphere but without any real gory moments. In comparison to Blawan’s His He She & She for example, which is punctuated with Wilhelm screams and vocal samples about hiding bodies under garages, the influence is much more subtle but is still intrusive enough to induce unease. This is best heard in through what seem to be bicycle bell samples in “Gutter Vibrations” and the carnivalesque staccato of “You Were Wrong”. Sd Laika’s awareness that the unknown can create a tense, thrilling atmosphere is obvious, especially in “Don’t Know” where the loud-quiet dynamic lends itself to the general unpredictability that creeps through the album. All this ultimately makes the album a fairly manic listen but doesn’t leave you feeling exhausted.

Of course, Runge didn’t write That’s Harakiri after reading a bunch of Lovecraft. While “I Don’t” and “Peace” owe a lot to the classic grime sound pallette, it would be selling Runge short to simply call That’s Harakiri a grime record. The low end that runs through the record brings to mind Andy Stott, particularly the recent Millie & Andrea LP, which also sits at a confluence of styles. It gives the album a somewhat apocalyptic vibe which is apt considering the terror Runge is clearly trying to invoke, the record is named after ritualistic suicide after all. Ritualism appears again by way of “It’s Ritual” which offers up the most structurally straightforward track on the album but effectively conveys the sense of doom through its techno stomp. More than anything else though, That’s Harakiri is led by ideas. Runge happily wonders down any new and unusual path his outlandish imagination can conjure up, no matter how murky or insurmountable they may seem. Almost all of the tracks are beneath the four-minute mark in length on the half-hour long album, though rather than come across as underdeveloped, they rarely betray any limit to potential. Runge will take an idea or motif and mess around with it in multiple ways, leaving them open to interpretation, similar to the approach Zomby takes but for an aversion to the latter’s sparseness. At times, the motifs may be familiar, such as the iconic synths and eski clicks of “I Don’t” (which also make an appearance on “I Feel Cold” from the Unknown Vectors EP), and they’ll be pulverised and fired down a completely unconventional avenue – it’s disorienting, bearing witness such calculated and purposefully heavy-handed manipulation of vaguely recognisable sounds. “I Don’t” is That’s Harakiri’s undoubted highlight, the simple but menacing vocal sample asserting that it’s not really one for anyone of a nervous disposition. Very rarely do Runge’s impulsive trials fail to impress, yet “Great God Pan” sees him incongruously linger too long in the same area. Contrarily, “Meshes” cuts out at the very instant it hits top speed.

There’s little in the way of traditional structure holding together the unpredictable seizure of an album, however its opener plays the part of prologue magnificently well. “Peace” feels like a reprise of everything the album is plus everything it isn’t, a dizzying first glimpse into Runge’s mind where each PS One start-up fuzz melody, every backmasked string section is a shard of glass from a mirror constantly in flux between breaking and reassembling. Accompanied by a faint, warbling voice in the back of our heads, it’s a fascinatingly confusing and controlled piece of chaos that foreshadows the rest of the album from an eye of the storm perspective. As for structure on a micro level, the tracks on That’s Harakiri take fewer cues from song formulae than they do rollercoaster blueprints. “Gutter Vibrations” and “Peaked” might be the biggest offenders in this regard, incongruous and fidgety as they are, and being offended and repulsed aren’t distant reactions to certain points of the record, simply for its sheer disregard towards anything expected of it. The creeping, machinistic “Remote Heaven” sits nearer the side of convention on the relatability scale compared to most of the record, and it wouldn’t sound out of place amongst the works of Logos, whilst “Percressions” is the stark outlier closing the album with a slight nod to R.I.P-era Actress. Runge doesn’t come up short when it comes to subverting listeners, so we arrive at the end to see him flip the switch and push an interlude-like snare-clap percussion jam alongside some kicks and echoey stab melodies. At first it’s the least condense thing on That’s Harakiri, until it swells and it swells uncontrollably, like metallic reverberations down a well, before bursting back to its basics. Materialising out of thin air, it immediately announces itself as a highlight, and in fact it feels like it really shouldn’t be the end of the album – yet here we are.

Apart from his name and where he’s from, we don’t really know much else about Sd Laika or his background. All this makes discerning his influences more interesting. His obvious engagement with grime despite living thousands of miles from its epicentre, his fascination with ritual and horror, his flirtations with techno all make That’s Harakiri an engaging listen. An apparent lack of live shows and little fanfare about his releases mean that its likely that Sd Laika is simply a bedroom producer with a lot of talent. He says himself he never thought these tracks would see light of day, so its refreshing that Tri Angle sought to treat us by giving them a full release. Tri Angle’s reputation as a platform for new talent regardless of sound continues to burgeon with That’s Harakiri. It is obvious that this is an album that was never intended to be an album, but where it lacks in cohesiveness it makes up for in well developed ideas and imagery. Sd Laika has been lumped in with the current resurgence in grime we’re currently witnessing, but geographically and stylistically he is detached from this. That’s Harakiri’s unique pool of influence beyond the music is part of this and ultimately make it one of the most imperative releases of the year.

Antoin Lindsay