The idea of Slaves’ sophomore album is one to be excited about, but also one to absolutely dread. On one hand, the Kent duo’s debut full-length Are You Satisfied? had its fair share of thrills, and their rickety, confrontational garage-punk was one of the driving forces of the UK’s indie explosion of the past couple of years. But on the other hand, Are You Satisfied? felt like its own self-contained beast, one that was clearly boxed off with very few notions or expectations for an expanding sound. That’s why the initial standing of Take Control remains so dubious – it’s hard to see how it can be a progression rather than a diminished return, and for a band like Slaves for whom the range of dynamics is slight as it is, either option can be potentially tough to pull off.
Where the final product falls is somewhere in the middle. Take Control is immediately recognisable as a Slaves album – Laurie Vincent’s guitar bashes are as rough and unrefined as always and Isaac Holman still batters his drums while barking in his “I’ll ‘ave you, you mug!”-Cockney accent – but there’s a clear desire to branch out. For the most part, Take Control abandons the sharpness and playful wit that characterised the duo’s debut in favour of lumbering, heavy clunks of tracks like Consume Or Be Consumed and Play Dead which completely lack whatever little tact and artifice that Slaves had in the first place. The production doesn’t help either with former Beastie Boy Mike D behind the mixing desk, and while he tries to retain the ramshackle sensibilities that the band have made their own, a lot of these tracks just feel muddy, especially the guitars which gurgle under layers of the treacle-thick mix. It very seldom works or sounds good, only on the deliberately mundane plod of People That You Meet.
As is to be expected, Slaves’ greatest success on Take Control is when they stick to what they know. The raucous ankle-biters of Spit It Out and the title track are the best examples, two tracks that could have been on their debut with their snarky, snotty punches. There are still some patches of light that peak out elsewhere though – for a Slaves song, Lies is relatively understated as it anchors itself into a choppy groove with sandy drumbeats, and People That You Meet and Rich Man are the kind of tracks that put the murkier sonics of the album to good use, the latter adopting what’s almost a rolling rock ‘n’ roll-style groove. They still pale in comparison to Slaves at their rabble-rousing best, but they at least show that a successful evolution in sound for the duo isn’t completely off the cards.
Granted, if you look elsewhere in the album that statement might seem fairly questionable, as pretty much every instance in which the duo try anything radically different, they utterly butcher any chances of success. There are two main styles that Slaves dip their toes into – hip-hop and alternative dance – and to be fair, when it comes to the former they’re not too bad. It only appears in any great capacity on the cumbersome plod of Consume Or Be Consumed, but Isaac Holman’s rapping seems to have translated from their now-standard cover of Skepta’s Shutdown to their own original material fairly smoothly. He’s certainly better than Mike D who, on his guest verse, ditches his traditionally nasal Manhattan delivery for a bastardised Cockney attempt that just sounds horrific.
But where the album sinks into irredeemable territory is in its final few songs, where for some inexplicable reason, they chuck in baggy ’90s house beats to drive tracks like STD’s / PHD’s that – big shock – don’t work. It’s not a case of not trying – they get Baxter Dury to lend some old-school cred to Steer Clear even though he ends up a complete non-presence – but it was a switch that was destined to fail because a) there’s no transition or hint of the skittering beats whatsoever prior to this, and b) they’re brought so far forward in the mix that any guitars or organic instrumentation of any sort are completely drowned out, and they sound like a completely different band.
Still, credit where it’s due – it’s good that Slaves are actually acknowledging the limits of their sound, and are actively working to rectify them. But when their attempts are this misguided, you have to wonder whether it’s actually worth it. It really does speak volumes that the best parts of Take Control are where Slaves play to their strengths; it either shows that they’re very good at their own set style, or such limited performers that anything beyond said set style is out of the question. To take a guess, Take Control would suggest it’s the latter – it’s a disappointingly long-winded album, especially considering the energy and bite of their debut, and only serves to live down to the worst of prior expectations as the definition of a sophomore slump.
For fans of: Rat Boy, Jamie T, The Streets
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Take Control’ by Slaves is out now on Virgin EMI.