Album Review: 700 Bliss – Nothing To Declare

[Hyperdub; 2022]

Nothing To Declare, the Hyperdub-released debut LP of 700 Bliss, strikes as an impact event. From the relics of strife and destruction, the duo of Moor Mother and DJ Haram use raw materials at hand to mend, build and redesign. The fabrics they use include fringe club music, hip hop sampling, Middle Eastern drums, slam poetry, punk rock, jazz and noise, all coalescing in a knife-edge fashion, keenly political above all else. You get the sense the totality of these 16 tracks was driven by personal experience and research over some kind of contrived overarching aesthetic. 

The opening title track uses cacophony to devastating effect. Moor Mother’s flow burrows into your ear with stone cold resignation, each word delivered as if carefully etched in concrete. The sprawling, percussion-driven cadence on the track symbolizes ephemeral ‘progress’. Haram, meanwhile, takes on a more disembodied, incredulous tone, taking aim at self-obsessed live-streamers (“Are you a narcissist but righteous?”) with the snappy disposition of someone noticing a piece of food stuck between one’s teeth. 

“Nothing To Declare” is 700 Bliss’ cheeky, passive aggressive way of immediately cutting to the chase. It’s as if to say ‘so much pointless shit is occupying the attention economy, so as long as you’re spending time listening to us, we’re gonna haul you along the issues we care about the most.’ Of course, the title itself is a playful misdirection, as Haram and Moor Mother obviously have plenty to say. They just don’t feel they need to always spell it out in cast iron fashion: their respective politics are urgently implicit in their art. 

As a result, each track on Nothing To Declare feels like a condensed, expertly-aimed Hadoken of fun, furious energy. And by doing just that, 700 Bliss Trojan Horse an encyclopedia’s worth of information and culture, cunningly mixing traditional elements with the bleeding edge. For example, Moor Mother enshrines dance pioneer Katherine Dunham on “Anthology”, declaring “she danced America on stage” over Haram’s pinched techno beat. With emphasis on the latter point: the track still sounds like it’s jammed inside an invisible barrier, unable to drive into the higher gear. It speaks to how much work is still left to be done against the erasure of marginalised voices. With pandemic protocols no longer in place, people seem to relish being able to dance again. With this in mind, Moor Mother’s wistful, fatigued “I feel like dancing” feels especially poignant. 

The track concisely summarises what makes Nothing To Declare such a compelling listen: it exudes pure joy while vigilantly keeping joy at arm’s length. The fact that 700 Bliss’s music is impossible to define with a gimmicky genre or term is part of the point: Moor Mother and DJ Haram are perpetually clawing and aspiring to tread unmarked territories within recorded music. One of the keywords used is “house party catharsis”: creating from that primordial place where people socialise and exchange with unfiltered joy. It’s what happened in 1973 in the Bronx when DJ Cool Herc figured he could juxtapose sounds of different records together.

Though Nothing To Declare still bursts at the seams with nonchalant, gritty energy, 700 Bliss’ ambition to spark a similar big bang shines through. On the stark, minimal drill vestiges of “Bless Grips”, Moor Mother and DJ Haram both repeat the “time move / don’t pass”, parleying on unwritten futures over established pasts. “They keep looking at me”, the former barks dejectedly, wondering why those who point out injustice always have to keep carrying the torch alone. Progress isn’t happening fast enough, so she wonders how much she needs to “bloody up my speech” to shake our collective core even further.

To appreciate Nothing To Declare the fullest, indeed, it does take some investment in the fundamental sounds and vocabulary 700 Bliss choose to blend together. As free-form as the music sounds, everything on this album feels very deliberately placed and executed. DJ Haram’s frequent use of darbuka drums as an organic foil to the digitised onslaught is a perfect example. I reckon this goes beyond just personal heritage: “darburka” is the Arabic term for “to strike”, and its distinct textural qualities – clean, piercing, and melodic – seem very tricky to mix with other sonic elements. In 700 Bliss’ music specifically, the instrument acts like an autonomous, liberated voice, almost as a swarm of insects propelling forth the voices of Moor Mother and Orion Sun. The latter’s R&B inflected whisper adds an introspective soothsaying element to the former’s bluster.

Moor Mother and DJ Haram are avid collaborators and for Nothing To Declare, both sifted through their respective rolodexes to add new surprising elements to their impassioned two-way dynamic. “Candace Parker” – a tribute to the two-time WNBA Champion – pushes the talents of Palestinian producer Muqata’a to the fore; there’s also the proverbial DiCaprio finger-point moment for hip-hop aficionado’s when Moor Mother briefly channels Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones II”. Lafawndah’s processed alien-sounding vocals take center stage on “Totally Spies”. Special Interest’s Alli Logout gets beamed into the room of “Capitol” with a fiery shout-sing sequence. Author M. Téllez, meanwhile, offers tentative words of prosperity barely audible over the pouncing menace of “More Victories”; another cool example of how 700 Bliss filters joy from more grounded, robust productions.

The duo saves the biggest slap of reality for last with “Lead Level 15”, sampling a jazz trumpet that ignites like a nuclear mushroom cloud, as machine gun beats, pitched vocals skirmish all round the track. At the heart of this aural warzone, Yoruban-American artist Ase Manual decries in an auto-tuned voice how “all these people just talk a lot” as if interviewed on a news broadcast, looking straight at the apathetic viewers back home. It’s the concluding sobering mic drop of two artists who are never shy of radicalising fun into a form of activism: you can dance if you want to, you just can’t leave your fellow human behind.