Album review: Enter Shikari, ‘A Flash Flood of Colour’ (2012)

(This is a review for New Reviews, also available here)

“The man who first noticed the inefficiency of sails,” wrote American iconoclast Henry Mencken, “was just as necessary to the birth of the steamboat as the man who built the pioneer steam engine.” St Albans electronicore outfit Enter Shikari, returning with a third album, are calling for a generation to sit up and notice. The prophetic opening of ‘System…’ and ‘…Meltdown’ is like a placard to the face. “Our generation’s gotta fight to survive,” Rou Reynolds sings. “It’s in your hands now, there’s no time”. Iconoclastic and smart, this album is a supreme chaser to the Lost Generation 2.0, to Occupy London, to our troubled times.

This is the sound of a band audibly expanding before you. The influences are thick and sweeping. There are fine borrowings of dubstep, electronica, drum and bass and hardcore. It is a rampaging phantasmagoria: sweaty punk, flashy post-hardcore, chunky post-industrial – the record is brimming with self-assurance, education and wit.

But what really stands out is what Enter Shiraki are not doing, who they aren’t teaming up with. Embodying the rhetoric of a disillusioned, kettled generation, they, like Mencken, know that something is diseased and broken. Like true iconoclasts, they attack mythologies – here, their victims are as much the bankers, arms dealers and corporations as their comrades. Imagine if The King Blues had read a book and you’re somewhere close. This is no glib call to violent class war or smash-the-rich idiocy. This is sophisticated, knowing – dare it, wise. Shiraki know that something is wrong, and they want all of us to fix it.

‘Sssnakepit’ is just such a call, a snarling ode to mass awakening. Like a dancing Sick Of It All, it cracks and crunches with gang vocals that hammer the idea of collectivity. On ‘Search Party’, this question has an almost academic detachment, a seeking innocence, a spluttering middle preceded by xylophonic tones, perfectly encapsulating the anger-innocence of the record. ‘Arguing With Thermometers’ pumps like The Bled with a funky, indie/electro verse. A veneration of progress, a defence of the environment: “Shackleton is rolling in his grave”. This innocence, this faux-naivete is tremendously funny, too. “We’re gonna invest into military hardware to find the remaining oil that left beneath the ice?!” asks Reynolds. “But what happens when it’s all gone?! You haven’t thought this through, have you boys?!”

Like Funeral For A Friend’s ‘Your Revolution Is A Joke’, ‘Stalemate’ is a revelatory, sobering piece of acoustic melancholy amidst the post-hardcore. “I’ve gone to the hills again” sounds majestic, its escape from the anger and confrontation of the first act is placed beautifully. ‘Gandhi Mate, Gandhi’ is furious and self-aware. It is a blistering rant, a resolution to fight, a swaggering confidence. “I do think I can speak for everyone when I say: we’re sick of this shit!” The young left may have found a brilliant band to speak for them.

‘Constellations’ is a breathtaking close to the record. Profoundly affecting, it’s a rejection of anti-capitalism like nothing – save PJ Harvey, perhaps – that musicians have offered for our contemporary crisis. It has something of Zarathustra in its hero’s return to the mountains and to solitude. And this matches the album’s tone of detached anger, its furious destruction of values and capitalism’s safeties. But let’s not get too carried away with the political energies. A Flash Flood of Colour is the band’s aural zenith. It is a remarkable piece of work, a plethora of sounds. Enter Shikari have found what they want to say and precisely how to say it – a rare gift – to ask, shout, scream fury but do it with smarts and originality. A triumph.

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Gig review: Birds In Flight @ O2 Academy 2, Islington, 20/01/2012

(This is a review for New Reviews, also available here: http://www.new-reviews.co.uk/?p=5473)

Southampton band Birds In Flight have to eat a bit of a broken glass sandwich tonight. Opening an unsigned showcase at 6:30pm is rarely exciting let alone at the joyless O2 Academy 2, Islington. (A can of Carlsberg Export is £4.40. Chewing gum is confiscated at the door.) But kicking off the night with ‘Wings’, they chug away with whoas and harmonies so wide they belie the venue’s narrow floor; next, straight into ‘Heroes’, its terrific disco middle section – a fine opening pair, a swift call to arms.

The immediacy of their sound is remarkable. There is an almost glib simplicity. One guitar, one vocal, a giant drum line. In fact, drummer Glenn Hampson is a revelation, the sheer volume of his snare strikes is aurally gutting, thrashing himself about, something akin to Chad Smith in Bon Jovi. Theo McDonald’s throbbing bass and sharp showmanship perfectly counters Luke Allen’s cautious guitar, his chunky palm mutes and seamless right hand. ‘Speak Up’ and ‘Time’ are tougher, smarter and more punishing than their studio versions on EP A Hand To Hold (2011), a nod to Paramore and Incubus.

Their sound is obvious but lean, and cutely nonchalant, like a Hemingway novel. There is no fat here, no soggy leftovers. A few times, this unfussiness is too clear. There is a tendency with some songs to follow a template: verse, chorus, repeat, middle breakdown, chorus – but this is raw output, pure charge. They are brutally casual – their persona manifestly embodied by vocalist Jess Gibbons. She is funny, a little awkward, shy, but her voice is staggering, deeply frightening. Not one bum note, not one wonky creak or croak: she is power, animated. It is incredible stuff. Her Joni Mitchell, middle-distance stare breathes guts into too-green lyrics. Tonight they soar, her voice colossal.

By the time we reach flagship track ‘Biggest Mistake’, the crowd are soundly beaten. This is a demon tune. The chorus is flat-out, undiminished rock vim, the melody so furiously catchy that there is not a head unbanged or foot untapped anywhere in the room. Gibbons is liberal and flirtatious with her pauses, gluing her vocal line to Hampson’s drums, letting the chorus smother you. There is a comfort here that few band members have with each other. A little more intrigue, a few more shrewd songs to show off their musicianship, a bigger stage, a lucky break – and they could be something.

★★★★

Gig review: Feeder @ KOKO, 31/01/12

(This is a review for BBM Magazine, also available here: http://www.bbmlive.com/music-news/gig-review-feeder-at-koko-london-31st-jan.html)

Feeder might be the band that rock and roll forgot. Surpassed by their countrymen and contemporaries like Coldplay and Stereophonics, Grant Nicholas and Taka Hirose have fallen, somewhat, between the cracks in history’s floorboards, casually dropped down the back of her sofa, never really absorbed into the post-Britpop indie scene, nor the early-00s mainstream metal resurgence. And tonight’s crowd reflects this. A smorgasbord of faces and ages – 14 to 65, at a guess – make up all 5 tiers of KOKO’s gorgeous theatre. Fans of a band whose output spans twenty one years, there are the awkwardly dancing middle-aged, the hard-faced thirty-somethings, the swooning teens. A farrago, an apathy.

The show begins with gentle clapping more akin to golf tournament applause then frenzied exultation. T-shirted to hell they may be, but this crowd does not declare its love of Feeder with noise. Frontman Grant Nicholas takes to the stage alone, opening, idiosyncratically, with ‘Children of the Sun’, the final track of new album Generation Freakshow (Big Teeth) which is due out in April. Cordially received, he is joined by bassist Taka Hirose, now the only other constituent member of Feeder, and collaborator/session drummer Damon Wilson. Tearing through ‘This Town’ and ‘Renegades’ without so much as a breath of interaction with the audience, Nicholas and Hirose struggle to get KOKO’s feet moving. TV marketing joyride ‘Feeling The Moment’ lifts the balconies clean off the walls with cacophonies of ‘wooohhhh’. But ‘Sunrise’, despite sounding eerily like The Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’, is a disappointment. (At this point, about ten minutes of review material was lost to knee-wobbling nausea as the man in front of me shoved his hand down the front of his lady friend’s trousers. Sorry for going a bit gonzo. But you didn’t have to see it, did you?)

Then we get going. The chords that open ‘Just The Way I’m Feeling’ are beautiful, filling the theatre, that echo and reverb which is so much a part of Feeder’s live sound now paying off. The chorus is enormous, the sing-along seismic. Nicholas strums the opening chords of ‘Buck Rogers’ and stops. “We’re not playing that tonight,” he jokes, to boos and panto hisses. “It’s that fucking Lucozade ad, they ripped us off” – before the band burst in and the players and lemons get the floor bouncing. ‘Idaho’ and ‘Generation Freakshow’ hint at a new album with all the hooks and cute swagger of Echo Park (Echo, 2001), the fuzzy, frisky rock of Silent Cry (Echo, 2008). A re-appraisal of Feeder rather than a revolution.

It’s hard to see what Feeder do differently. Like the Foo Fighters, or Muse, one never has a craving to escape deeply into them, often merely to paddle. On the basis of tonight’s showcase, there is little that is profound about their new material. But encore tracks ‘High’ and the ever-tremendous ‘Just A Day’ remind everyone here that however loosely new skin may fit for the seasoned or casual fan of the Big Hits, multiple platinum-selling albums are rarely the accidents of history, and these are great songs, no matter how much history – from tonight’s evidence – has left Feeder behind.

★★★

Album Review: Slow Buildings, ‘This Is Dead Aesthetic Junk’ (2011)

(This is my first piece for New Reviews, an online review blog for unsigned and underground bands. You can also read the review here: http://www.new-reviews.co.uk/?p=5462)

New Jersey’s Slow Buildings, fronted by Jason Legacy (great name), release their first full-length album This Is Dead Aesthetic Junk, Legacy following up his 2005 record Good Things Happen with a full band sound – extra electric dynamics and more melodious pop.

The breadth of influence strikes immediately. The Beatles, Bowie, The Cure. ‘Nice Guys Finish First’ rolls out with a gentle picking, a little REM, The Velvet Underground, a little Weezer. It is an un-assuming, under-confident start to the record. ‘She’s Candy Covered’ is bouncing, sexy, flirtatious with a metronomic cow bell. ‘Glass Joe’ is the best song on the album. A self-referential opening, a simple, strutting riff, crunching palm-muting, peppered with delicious Beach Boys-esque swooning ooohs.

But then the rest of it. In truth, it is hard not to be so disparaging about the lack of ambition. There is little to show here, very little to distinguish Slow Buildings as a band to be worth noticing. ‘Christian Army Falls’ is gruesomely arbitrary, a seemingly last-minute and rushed ode to Christian belief that is throwaway, off-the-cuff sentiment. A trashy riff complements cruel, cursory lyrics. “Foul agnostics with tempted souls/Will spend eternity like burning coals,” Legacy sings. Isn’t that cute? Hatred of the non-believers. A nice bit of casual hate. Those likely to be offended should tread carefully.

‘I Am A Strange Loop’ is microcosmic of the band’s major flaw. It is decent but totally undemanding. And ‘Hanz Blixx’ surely, surely – please, God – cannot be a riff on Hans Blix. Is it not tragic that, wherever Blix goes, nobody wants to see him? No. Isn’t his plight a comment on the modern condition of lonely, disconnected man? No. This is under-thought silliness. “‘Are we nervous?/Or are we bugged?/There’s a mic hidden underneath the rug.” What? ‘1’s and 0’s’ (sic) seems to be an attack on the university, on the American education. Charles S.Peirce or Henry Adams it is not. The album dribbles out with a limp, blob drop.

It is poorly produced, too. Oce Dytioco’s distortion should be gutsier in many places, but is compressed so desperately that he might as well be played in a thimble. The drums are glum. Synthetically flat, overly-triggered, the result is a plaff-plaff-plaff sound on the snare and cymbals that sound like someone farting onto a saucer. On top of this, the drum lines are totally indisciplined. There are snare rolls every two bars and there is no consistency, like an excited 14-year-old in their first band. It is a ragged, unchecked sound.

Slow Buildings are a band that sound like they have (or want to have) something to say but don’t yet know how to do it. The lyrics are curt but trite. “Yes, I know that my friend is gone/But I can’t look away/Now he hides in a web of lies/So I look to yesterday.” This is an album, a band, a sound that could be exciting if they were more patient. This is an album that lacks in voice, hooks and intrigue. The musicianship is fine, the connection between the musicians evidently comfortable and mutually challenging which is rare. They seem to be searching for their sound, for a maturity that would reward listeners in the future. Legacy is a smart constructor of melodies, but the band struggle underneath the weight of influences, the weight of everything they are trying to do. There is the sense, here, that they are a little too handcuffed, that there is not enough on offer for anyone to be really or wholly enticed or impressed. It is a shame, because they could be so much better.

★★

Album Review: The Little Willies, ‘For The Good Times’

(This is a review for BBM Magazine, also available here: http://www.bbmlive.com/music-news/the-little-willies-for-the-good-times-album-review.html)

This is the newest release from Norah Jones. No, hang on! Come back! It’s half decent. Honestly. The Little Willies, her collaborative country shtick, put out their second cover album following 2006’s The Little Willies (Milking Bull). Teaming up with the notable pair Jim Campilongo (guitar) and Richard Julian (vocals), Jones and The Little Willies strum up a fine, sweet homage to the country establishment of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson.

The gliding tones of the record come direct with Scotty Wiseman’s ‘Remember Me.’ Like a slow bowing of a violin, it swoons a little, tugs you a little. Its tenderness is beautifully immediate. ‘Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves’ (Cal Martin) is flirtatious with mariachi, akin to the Coens’ Fargo soundtrack. That North Dakota folksy charm; the Oklahoman small town drive. The duel vocal work of Jones and Julian is all but flawless. On Willie Nelson’s ‘Perfectly Lonely,’ Julian hits the melody around with a candied nonchalance. Here, Jones follows with her patented Nice, Soft Voice, but for the most part it works.

The album does sweat a little. For fans, this may be an exciting take on classical country music. For pretty much everyone else, it is the definition of unsexy. ‘Lovesick Blues’ (Mills and Friend), despite frankly stupendous vocal harmonies, hits you in the gut like accidentally catching a look at your mum’s bum. ‘Tommy Rockwood’ is stratospherically awful. Far too often, the album is unambitious. Despite some curious flourishes from Campilongo’s elastic Telecaster, in some places he is underused when he ought to be foregrounded (‘Foul Owl on the Prowl’, Jones, Bergman and Bergman) and saturatingly widespread when he should be moderated (‘Wide Open Road,’ Johnny Cash).

As for the big cheeses covered here, Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ is gently loved by Jones. Nelson’s ‘Perfectly Lonely’ opens with cleverly inter-picking guitar and piano, and is well rendered, if a little like the music for a Pixar montage. Johnny Cash could have abused himself less from heroin and listened to the cover of ‘Wide Open Road’ to really rip himself open. Nonetheless, much of this record is redemptive, unapologetic in its love of a bit of hotel foyer schmaltz, and we should be grateful if all covers were handled and repackaged with this much devotion.

★★★