It’s taken a while for London experimental rap collective 404 Guild to arrive at their debut album, but not without reason. Clearly, two years of pandemic have taken their toll, as has the ever-increasing material strain of living and making work in the capital; yet in 2019, the group also had to deal with the tragic death of their bandmate Mina Topley-Bird, who ended her own life after a long period of mental ill-health. Her passing is not explicitly mentioned on the album, but the scars of the event mark much of its flesh; it’s hard not to connect it to the macabre, intimate dejection of lines like “Whole way through your life I saw you stare death in the face / The end was always there, you didn’t care, you weren’t afraid” (‘Contact’) and “Getting bad news in slow motion / Burnt out, the sun hits / Can’t believe the timing of this / Can’t deal with it, I don’t want it / It’s way too real if I’m honest” (‘Sodium Light’).
Aesthetically, False Dawn is a smart coagulation of the group’s wide array of influences. The earnest verbosity of classic alternative hip-hop from both sides of the Atlantic looms over much of the record, as does the tundral atmosphere and trudging pace of UK drill. The album is also flickered with the darkest shades of contemporary London jazz, with occasional tracks sounding more than a little like Tom Misch or Kamaal Williams in a fugue state. Perhaps more than anything, False Dawn sounds exactly like what it is: a sonic analogue of a wounded, uncertain city, its bountiful riches never far away, but largely obscured by the trauma and instability that stalks so much modern life. It’s bleak, definitely, but the record is at its most compelling when it fully embraces that darkness, as on ‘At Square One’, whose louche beats recall fellow London genre-splicer Wu-Lu, or ‘Chiron’, a screwface monster of a tune which swaggers with the hard confidence of someone who has absolutely nothing to lose. It’s not easy out there, and 404 Guild know it; at least, with that knowledge, they’ve managed to make something so honest, accomplished and cathartic.