Well, at least the music was great.
The Hope Six Demolition Project
I didn’t find the time to write about the gigs I attended during 2016, but possibly my favourite live experience was PJ Harvey’s headline show at Field Day festival. Backed by a fearsome phalanx of tight-knit musicians and largely sticking with her new material, she sounded magnetic, gutsy, and utterly commanding from start-to-finish. It was a show that accentuated the strengths of The Hope Six Demolition Project, which casts a cold look at American foreign policy and the damage is has increasingly wrought on a global scale. Harvey’s reportage is less concentrated in its focus than 2011’s mighty Let England Shake, and more loosely bound in both sound and vision, but it’s no less unflinching in its coverage of the failures of government and communities alike. With her band strafing confidently between rollicking rallies (‘The Community of Hope’), militant stomps (‘Chain of Keys’) and eerie hymnals (‘River Anacostia’), Harvey presides over a rich tableau of sound, one whose edges are roughened and fraying to match her snapshots of poverty and decay. The results are frequently remarkable: ‘The Ministry of Defence’ lands like a hammerblow, and the combination of queasy, surging blues and Harvey’s steely refrains on ‘The Wheel’ still sends goosebumps shuddering up my back.
“Hey little children, don’t disappear / I heard it was twenty-eight thousand.”
Over the course of the year, I came to consider Boy King as something of a guilty pleasure. While it was far from panned, the general consensus among critics (and friends) has been that Wild Beasts’ fifth is below par for the group: a bold but disappointing swerve into uncharacteristically simple scuzz-rock. Well, sod those claims, and sod any notions of this record as a “guilty” pleasure. Its overall effect may be less spellbinding and poetic than that of its predecessors, but I love Boy King for its neon-hued aesthetic and unapologetically punchy approach. Here is the sound of a band following its gut instincts and going for broke: taking small but significant stylistic risks and sounding alive with glee as a result. As their delightful live shows this year proved, Wild Beasts are invigorated afresh as a quartet, and on record, the muscular production of John Congleton suits the relapse of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s more salacious appetites: the vocalists skewering the perils of modern masculinity while simultaneously basking in its intoxicating glow. In a nutshell, Boy King is a simmering platter of thumping beats, grimy grooves, and low-slung sleaze from one of my favourite contemporary bands. That’s how I get my bang.
“These are blessed times that we’re living in / Down here on Earth all is forgiven.”
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
In modern times, it has become tiresomely easy to spot the bands whose comebacks have been hastened for the sake of self-indulgence, financial necessity, or even boredom. The spark of true relevance and artistic purpose is unmistakable, and the return of A Tribe Called Quest not only feels genuine in intentions, it’s an aching relief to witness their return at this particular time. Since Tribe last put their manifestos to record in 1998, a lot has changed – in the music industry itself, let alone on a global scale. But in other cases, some things haven’t changed enough, and as 2016’s headlines were apparently keen to attest, the world is rapidly backsliding at an alarming pace. Such is the climate in which Tribe were finally compelled to drop new material: equal parts aural balm and calms to mobilise. Urgency runs deep through We Got It From Here…, which runs to an hour of knotty, hard-hitting polemics without once losing its fire. With an intimidating roster of personnel ensuring that the production is tighter than ever, the bond of Tribe’s core members gleams at the heart of this record; the group ensuring that humanism shines through every bar. Just as they did twenty years ago, Tribe sound galvanised to be at the fray’s forefront, demanding that unity and happiness are recognised as more than abstract ideals: they’re rights.
“Motherfuck your numbers and your statisticians / Fuck y’all know about true competition?”
If her past albums released as Antony Hegarty were quiet in their potency, the first album released under Anohni’s new moniker ruthlessly stamps such tremulous beauty into memory with all-consuming rage. HOPELESSNESS is an unflinching riposte to the western world that lets nobody off the hook – including the listener. She spends these eleven cuts shooting from different perspectives and taking aim at various figures in a takedown of ideological apathy on topics ranging from climate change to drone warfare, treatment of terrorists and beyond. It’s a scattergun approach, but Anohni and her collaborators have produced a record of such ruthless directness that it lands with explosive force. The icy bluster of the music (largely courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never) is dramatic to the point of confrontational: ‘4 Degrees’ strikes with booming severity, Anohni eviscerating our collective complicity in natural destruction for the sake of our own comfort. Elsewhere, execution is presented as a facet of the American dream over sparkling keys, the creepy ‘Obama’ levels crushed disappointment and fury at the outgoing President, and ‘Crisis’ is wrenchingly direct in its empathy with innocent victims of America’s military force. You could reasonably summarise the whole enterprise as heavy-handed and clunky, but given the scale of Anohni’s ambitions and the blatant horrors in her firing line, her sober tone is more than suitable: it cuts through our willful silence with severity.
“We are all Americans now.”
Cate Le Bon
Cate Le Bon’s own website summarises the songwriter’s fourth album as “a coalition of inescapable feelings and fabricated nonsense, each propping the other up”. It’s a suitably muzzy description for an album that combines clear, gorgeous melodies with fragmented observations, each tinged with a dreamlike quality. Yet beneath the wonky neo-psychedelia and playful riddles, what impresses most over repeated listens is the melodic muscle on display from Le Bon and her group. The overall ambience is akin to being invited into Le Bon’s own home, and peering through the vibrant clutter that fills all spaces in sight: the coat hangers, the crumby cookbooks, handprints on the windows, dusty cream blinds. Amid these environs, she sings and performs with a lightness of touch; her delivery artful but far from precious, high on wonder rather than a thickly fragrant haze. The results are intimate, inventive, and companionable: her influences are plain to see, but it’s a delight to sit with Crab Day and surrender to Le Bon’s melodic and lyrical fancies.
“All the towns are miniature / All the girls are beautiful ghosts.”
Boy King (Domino)
The music of Wild Beasts has regularly proved to be an ornate confection, drawn from the curious minds of four musicians keen to wield the tried-and-tested tools of indie-rock while questing for much more peculiar results. While never wholly straightforward, the progression of the Kendal quartet as charted across their first four albums generally indicates a softening of their sharper edges; the swooping dramatics of their early work smoothed down into sleek art-pop, and the lusty groans of yesteryear sublimated by a more wholesome contentment. By 2014’s Present Tense, listeners could be forgiven for thinking that the group’s days of hooting and howling had at last been put to bed – or so it seemed until early portents of Boy King crashed to earth, indicating a fifth album curveball which refutes any notions of a band tamed with smirking disdain.
In stark contrast to the warm expanses heard in ‘Palace’ and ‘Mecca’, Boy King is squat, muscular, and moody. It frames Wild Beasts as if caught beneath the glow of a full moon, transformed (whether temporarily or for the long-term) into swaggering brutes hunting for confrontation. Producer John Congleton encouraged the band’s gut instincts while mining a thick, leathery aesthetic, and the solution is Wild Beasts’ brashest effort yet: heavy on the ears and blunt in sentiment. Gone are the open spaces and intricate filigrees, instead we are presented with menacing electronics and OTT guitar heroics, with striking imagery to match. The Boy King cover is composed of deep oranges and blacks, with a schlocky band logo stamped beneath the looming, monstrous and ridiculous figure of the “boy king”: a projection of the male ego that Thorpe and co. are keen to dissect in the most visceral way possible. Intended as both a vilification and celebration of modern masculinity, Boy King is a gaudy project, but a playful one too. The group are teasing and baiting their audience like never before: some will be repelled by the grubbiness that the album revels in, while others may be thrilled by such a gearshift. And indeed, while the more refined textures and subtleties of past works have been thrown to the wind, it’s heartening to hear Wild Beasts serving their own artistic whims and impulses, refusing to settle for complacency and pushing themselves to rethink previous templates.
What emerges is a striking – if not entirely unprecedented – take on Wild Beasts’ early brand of carnal lust, yet where Limbo, Panto dressed its “huffing and puffing” in vaudevillian drama and bizarre punchlines, on Boy King, dual vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming aren’t afraid to go straight for the jugular – “get in and get out”, as they put it. Their previous come-ons (“new squeeze, take off your chemise / and I’ll do as I please”) appear positively genteel when measured against some of the unfettered demands on display here (“you can stuff your chastity” makes for a particularly prickly opening gambit), and when incorporated with insidious grooves and bruising production, the effect is exacerbated. The approach is simultaneously exhilarating and repulsive in its overwhelming (and occasionally cartoonish) machismo. Limber lead single ‘Get My Bang’ finds the band circled by a mass of warped cackles (as sampled from The Knife), which goad the group into the “darker ages” of entitled consumption (whether it’s that of material or fleshly gain is left open to interpretation). The song is crowned by a splattering guitar solo; a gleeful tribute to the “shred face” of rock mythology rivalled by the sludgy guitars of ‘He the Colossus’. It’s fun to hear the band let rip like this, although there are cuts on the album where such tricks are on-the-nose without significant payoff. Such moments further accentuate the outlying beauty of album highlight ‘Celestial Creatures’; an odyssey of the night that conjures a neon cityscape through thrumming guitars and spooked pianos, gloriously rendered in Congleton’s rubbery production. It’s an ecstatic rhapsody crowned by a sumptuous coda, with some of Thorpe’s dreamiest observations (“every fibre remains so alive”) stirred into the atmospheres.
Beyond this rare moment of exaltation, the world scrutinised in Boy King is lewd and apocalyptic. Between sleazy encounters and sinister advances, Thorpe and Fleming are busy eyeballing the self-destruction ingrained in such behaviour. The desperation underpinning these attempted conquests shows through from time to time, leavening the more outrageous claims with hints towards an existential dislocation. “I want you to love me,” Fleming howls during the excellent R&B thump ‘Ponytail’, while on ‘2BU’ he’s consumed by a queasy mixture of rage and desire, savouring a vengeful pursuit while also fantasising ownership of his quarry. Thorpe nails it most brazenly on the swaggering ‘Tough Guy’; a bludgeoning piece of riff-rock which circles back to the sentiment “I’d better suck it up / like a tough guy would”. In every corner of the record, the sordid outcries can be traced to the masculine entitlement entrenched by society, and ‘Tough Guy’ articulates the double-edged ugliness that such standards induce. An eyebrow-raising double-entendre during the second verse sees Thorpe wailing “but we’re just not big enough!”, looking on as males attempt to fill the holes in themselves with sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and other gimmicky pleasures. It feeds off the question of what it is that makes a man, and gives Boy King a sharpness beneath the surface, even if it’s an avenue which the group could have explored more deeply for greater effect. Ultimately, the priapic binging still comes with a hangover, as Thorpe’s weary croon during the lonely ‘Dreamliner’ asserts. Finally reaping the consequences of past misdeeds, Boy King concludes on a note of regret and self-evisceration, Thorpe’s avatar coming up hollow in a painful examination of the self.
With its inherent contradictions (does the brusque aesthetic disguise grand intentions, or a lack thereof?), it’s a strange album to digest, and one which will leave a sour taste for anybody disgusted by the thought of Two Dancers’ masterminds chucking out the reading list and stamping on the distortion pedal. There’s certainly less detail to delve into, and for its instantaneous thrills, it’s a record with perhaps less staying power than its peers. However, what swings in the album’s favour is the energetic freedom discernible in the band’s performances. After the album’s surface shocks (its comparatively cruel overtones, the sonic bombast, its bizarre and often uncomfortable flaunting of masculine habits), Wild Beasts’ sense of adventure peeks through the noise. Boy King demonstrates the quartet acting intuitively, “play[ing] chicken” with themselves and driving their vision with a focus and willingness to tinker. As of release, it’s a challenge to determine how much of a bellwether Boy King will prove to be for Wild Beasts: will it be the first bold step into a new style, or a brief sojourn into the darkest recesses of the male ego? Whichever way, it’s an album that digs beneath the skin, one which, while sonically distinct from its predecessors, carries the same integrity and restless craving to evolve that has become Wild Beasts’ trademark.
“These are blessed times / We are celestial creatures.”