On paper, M A N I K’s ambitious debut Armies of the Night: I Declare War sounds seriously exciting. A semi-conceptual soundtrack to a possible new New York inspired by the cult 1979 gang flick The Warriors, woven from a fabric of subterranean synths and grimy hip-hop samples, stemming from a burgeoning New York electronica scene that has already birthed such brooding house experimentalists as Wolf + Lamb affiliate Nicolas Jaar. In practice, though, Armies of the Night, despite its painstakingly cultivated pervasive atmosphere, doesn’t fully deliver on its promise.
“Why don’t you tell where you from?”, cries a disembodied voice at the start of opener “My Hood”, and over the course of this lengthy release, M A N I K does his best to do just that. Having grown up in a Queens saturated with East Coast hip-hop and dabbled in various musical pursuits for over a decade, Chris Manik would seem the perfect figure to capture the murky nighttime underbelly of New York’s rundown outskirts, and his imperturbable melding of old and new (everything from proto-techno, post-dubstep, hip-hop, house, and early synth-tinged disco co-exists in this appropriate melting-pot) seems similarly ably poised to capture the city’s sprawling plugged-in tri-decadal multitudinous identities. The Warriors fits perfectly into this miasma. Charting eight gang-members’ Oddysean commute-from-hell across a hostile shadowy city pursued by various themed gangs sporting baseball tunics, rollerskates or matching leather, the film watches like an anti-guide to New York, a mutated possible future for the city, if one dusky aspect were to be magnified into supremacy. It is the same identity that is focussed on in Armies of the Night.
This isn’t a dark album per se, but it is constantly distant and airy. The dulled joyous club-stomp of “Nightfall”, with its submerged pop beats and stifled chorus, has the feel of passing a basement club on a dark street. Any hint of vibrancy or partying is offered on Armies of the Night only as a fleeting glimpse; the looped voices on “Nightfall” that invite the listener/wanderer to “come inside” are resolutely ignored – despite the repetition, we are not here to engage. M A N I K has a similarly aloof relationship with current electronic trends. Both the ominous funk of “Need Your Lovin”, which is intertwined with the spectre of a soulful vocal sample, and the chopped-up “City Kids”, which plays out over an old-school hip-hop bassline, call to mind James Blake’s early EPs, but they resolutely refuse to progress over their course, coiling in hypnotic repetition where they could have soared. This cultivated monotony is equal parts evocative and tiresome. The rhythmical looped hum of “Don’t Stop Don’t Run” evocatively suggests a gloaming train-ride, whilst the jittery house of “Ruckus 8OH8”, with its adornment of cheesy sax and squirting synth, has an addictive rhythmical nodding perseverance. Trying to pick a track that would truly stand up in isolation, though, is a thankless task. The evasive swell of the deliciously dreamy “Lose My Mind”, or the shuddering pulse of another post-dubstep effort, “Talk to U”, are probably as close as M A N I K comes to offering up bona fide singles, but Armies of the Night is an album album, designed to be listened to in its soot-clogged ethereal entirety; a dreamy half-heard Endtroducing.
The Warriors has achieved considerable cult status, but despite its breathless claustrophobia, it is surely a prime example of style over substance. Its achievement is in the detailed imagining of a katabasis across a deserted nocturnal graffiti-covered dystopian metropolis, where the steady rattle of beat-up subway trains and marauding cops provide the only hint that any order still pervades – characters are limited to brave/cowardly and dialogue is grunted and minimal. The Warriors isn’t so much a story as a sensory experience. This proves similarly true of Armies of the Night. M A N I K has sculpted a twisting, echoing, faux-soundtrack that is immersively atmospheric but by-and-large eschews stand-out melody and doesn’t seem to offer any real insight into the actual New York that spawned its creator. Too throwback to feel revolutionary, and too devoted to an impressionistic meandering to claw its way to club success, Armies of the Night exists as over an hour of intriguing but eerie and cold nocturnal background music. As a declaration of war, it is nothing if not oblique.