Great things were expected of Sheffield-based electro duo HIEM back in the heady days of 2004, when their debut single Chelsea was released. A deadpan and bitterly hilarious account of getting duffed up by ASBO girls set against tinny drums, it predated any of the soft Southern scenesters talking over their beats.
Seven years have passed, empires have risen and fallen, and HIEM have just got round to releasing their full length debut album. But has it been worth the wait?
Escape From Division Street will immediately connect with anyone who appreciates Sheffield’s auspicious electronic music tradition. HIEM’s main men, Nico and Bozz, are long-term alumni of the steel city’s scene – Bozz, as Bozzwell, released the fine solo album Bits & Pieces at the tail end of last year and is an alumnus of The All Seeing I – and it shows. It’s most obviously apparent in 2AM, which features guest vocals from Phil Oakey: a respectable showing, with keyboard phrases close to the Human League‘s but a tempo closer to a remix. “Just keep the music on and on / Because it’s 2am it don’t mean we have to stop,” Phil sing-songs. And there we were thinking he’d be all tucked up with a mug of cocoa by half 10.
The debt to Sheffield runs much deeper as the album progresses. The magpie spirit of ’80s Sheffield – robbing gleefully from Krautrock, Detroit techno, New York disco – is here in spades. Escape From Division Street borrows from these sources directly, from HIEM’s local influences (Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17, pre-stardom Pulp), and from more recent hip-hop and rave.
HIEM’s greatest strength here is the manipulation of sound textures: whilst the formats might be familiar, there are enough electronic squeaks and whoops to emperken the most formulaic track. Occasionally there’s the feeling of two kids let loose on an electronic toolbox, but it makes for fun listening.
The biggest step into uncharted territory is DJ Culture, a collaboration which Roots Manuva which falls oddly flat. “Sip the champagne, sniff the cocaine, everyone wants to know your name,” raps Roots over a stoned beat. Whether you get the irony or not, it’s as uninteresting as the superstars it’s attempting to satirise.
It’s only on the couple of occasions where Nico’s spoken-word vocals pop up that the album truly excites. Lemons And Limes, a true-life account of setting up an indie/dance club, has all the wit and dry Northern understatement of Chelsea: “I had to get a venue… I decided on this underground club… it weren’t underground cos you didn’t know where it were, it were underground cos you had to go down some steps to get into it.” Arctic Monkeys, eat your hearts out.
In some ways it’s a shame that they don’t find their own voice more often. But HIEM obviously know what they’re doing. Escape From Division Street is an impeccably produced album which slots neatly into the Sheffield musical heritage that they so clearly admire.