REVIEW ROUND-UP: Lonely The Brave, The Dirty Nil, The Xcerts

Lonely The Brave
The Hope List

As objectively important as this album is for Lonely The Brave, it’s unfortunately in the nature of the band for that to feel as downplayed as it does. They’ve never been a band about flash in any capacity, rather carving out their space in Britrock through a more aching, powerful variation of melody, and solidified immensely by the vocal capacity of Dave Jakes. On The Hope List though, Jakes isn’t here; instead Grumble Bee’s Jack Bennett serves as the band’s current frontman, and while he too has a great voice that bends the expectations of Britrock just enough to stand out without snapping the bounds, there’s still something about those first two Lonely The Brave albums that rings as impossible to replicate. That, combined with the rather subdued presence of the band outside of their music, leaves The Hope List feeling somewhat transitional in concept, even before a note of music has even been played. Admittedly that sounds a bit harsher than it really should – two great halves put together is unlikely to make a bad whole, after all – but the steps taken on The Hope List don’t quite hit the same heights as Lonely The Brave’s past albums. For one, the generally brighter tone and sound sands back some of the tension that made their earlier work stand out within Britrock, now playing in the same field while still having a more organic texture to it. It’s most similar to what Deaf Havana did on their mid-period work, taking the genre building blocks but giving the usual outcome a bit more mileage. A lot of credit does need to go to Bennett for that as well, as he slides into the frontman role pretty much effortlessly, with a vocal tone that can balance bellowing power with gruff, smouldering emotionality on the title track or Something I Said. Even when moving to more conventionally anthemic fare as this album does, the lack of artifice that’s always contributed to the beauty of Lonely The Brave feels very well realised, as the likes of Bright Eyes and Keeper will wheel into bigger choruses without becoming lost in the bombast, or The Harrow will achieve the same result as it closes the album on its most expansive and cinematic note. On the other hand though, that effect isn’t quite as gripping as what came before, where the power was more heaving and elemental in the execution, but the polish isn’t quite as overbearing as with a lot of Britrock, and the guitar and bass work augmented by strings is done tastefully enough to still click well.

It sounds about as vast and enormous as expected from Lonely The Brave, only with a bit less edge that is definitely noticeable. It makes for a listen that’s less distinct sonically, holding together with writing more focused on pulling out hope from darker times, but not having the same bone-deep resonance overall. But honestly, that feels more like a result of acclimatising to such an integral shift in their lineup rather than any conscious paring-back, because this certainly isn’t a lazy or underwhelming effort. As a lyricist, Bennett brings a lot of abstraction and metaphor that fits with the band’s previous work almost entirely, and though not quite as evocative on the whole, there’s still passion and power that courses through them, exactly like what had been there previously. It makes the emphasis on coaxing out those pockets of light and positivity fit where they mightn’t always have in the past, as tonally, the likes of Bright Eyes and Keeper hold onto the same mood. It’s a broader form of it, but it’s not an unconvincing shift in the way that others like, say, Young Guns might have strived for in the past, and that’s almost entirely down to Lonely The Brave knowing where their strengths are. Even as Bennett’s first run with the band, he’s already keyed into the wells of emotion and humanity that comprise so much of the band’s material, both from this album and from Grumble Bee, and that makes his addition feel worthwhile overall. Of course, the moments of greatness to the extent of the best of The Day’s War haven’t exactly been struck upon yet, but it’s easy to get the feeling that Lonely The Brave are still on course to move back in that direction with few setbacks to scupper them. The Hope List is transitional, sure, but in a way that has a clearer idea of what those better climes will hold. Most of all, it underlines how much potential and – fittingly enough – hope that Lonely The Brave still have in them.

7/10

For fans of: Biffy Clyro, Deaf Havana, The Xcerts

‘The Hope List’ by Lonely The Brave is released on 22nd January on Easy Life Records.


The Dirty Nil
Fuck Art

Ironically enough, there’s a definite artfulness to the way that The Dirty Nil have chosen to roll out this new album. They’ve always been rather cavalier when it comes to the bashed-out garage-punk they deliver, so to compound on that even further with a title as on the nose as Fuck Art, and a release date of New Year’s Day – when the only other thing that would even come out is some obscure black-metal that no one would ever hear – feels like the work of a band who’s either looking to disrupt the expected system of an act of their size completely, or whose tongue is practically ploughing through their cheek in real time. It’s not too dissimilar to their Canadian countrymen PUP, in that The Dirty Nil know how to use their scrappy, volatile energy to not only hit both outcomes at once, but do so entirely to their own benefit. It’s arguably the most effectively and efficiently to date that the band have been able to bring out their larger personality, especially with how easy it is to apply to both roaring, wide-eyed optimism, and a hefty dose of snark. It’s a credit to Luke Bentham’s capability as a frontman that he’s able to feel as home in both as he does, in how he’s able to bring certain self-deprecating ripples that permeate through a generally bracing love song like Doom Boy, and extrapolate them more fully into Hang Yer Moon with little being lost. It’s very indicative of the mindset that modern punk has adapted to fill, where burnout through simply how overwhelming life can be seeps into even moments of joy, and piling on some form of resilience is ultimately a necessity. Fortunately The Dirty Nil do it better than most, especially when there’s a barbed nature to their critiques of social media lurkers and all-or-nothing reactionism on Hello Jealousy and Possession that feels valid and thought out. They aren’t just screaming into the wind, no matter how easy that might be, and having One More And The Bill as the closer to illustrate the voracity of the gnawing headache definitely fits the overall mood.

In the same sense, the purity of The Dirty Nil’s particular brand of rock needs to be addressed, not only as such a concise way to exercise their viscera – and one that almost always works, at that – but one that, even on the most surface level, packs in the thrills and brawny, bravado-strewn power to ensure it connects with full force. For as much as The Dirty Nil have always trafficked in classic rock sensibilities affixed to their punk, Fuck Art sees the most realised version of that yet, in how the gnashing guitar tones of Doom Boy and Ride Or Die (the latter even borrowing an Ace Of Spades riff for good measure) mesh so effectively with hooks and choruses this robust. It’s the same result when they go full-blown power-pop; on a compositional level, there’s such a tightness and aptitude for quality earworms on Elvis ‘77 and Hello Jealousy that’s impossible to overlook. Compared to others in their field, The Dirty Nil simply feel bigger because of this, yet with all the DIY focus and imperfections still left in. That’s a key factor in contributing to the strength of the aforementioned personality, with Bentham appearing as a more refined vocalist this time around, but never so much that he feels overly preened, or that the punctures of occasional screams in the background feel out of place. In other words, it’s the sort of album that’s driven almost exclusively by the quality and character The Dirty Nil are looking to highlight with the unorthodox release date, and the year’s first stab at real excellence as a result. As the title might suggest, it’s The Dirty Nil running forward with all guns blazing and firing wildly, and more often than not, they’re hitting their targets perfectly.

8/10

For fans of: PUP, Spanish Love Songs, Single Mothers

‘Fuck Art’ by The Dirty Nil is out now on Dine Alone Records.


The Xcerts
So No One Told You Life Was Gonna Be This Way

The Xcerts mightn’t have a version of The Rembrandts’ I’ll Be There For You on this EP, but the lyric of that song that this EP draws its title from couldn’t feel more apt. Recorded between lockdowns in what was a period of uncertainty that hasn’t exactly let up, the four tracks here are covers of songs that gained new meanings for the band throughout quarantine, with the only immediate similarity being that they’re all the sort of huge, undeniable anthems that a band as tuned into that wavelength as The Xcerts could easily be seen enjoying. Rather than coaxed through the band’s usual diamond-encrusted pop-rock though, these are stripped-back, intimate renditions, a decision that definitely makes sense given the context this EP emerged from, but can honestly leave it feeling as throwaway as it ultimately might be. That’s more in the nature of a covers record than anything that can be deliberately attributed to the band though, and for a very small listen that isn’t exactly breaking the bank in terms of composition when it mostly consists of slight acoustics and atmosphere, it’s all kind of an inevitability. If anything, sticking to that feels like the better option, as when the rendition of The Cure’s Inbetween Days goes for a more developed sound in its jangle, the loud percussion punches and odd grinding within the mix can really distract. At least on a song like Starship’s We Built This City, the gentle, chilly vibe paired with Murray Macleod’s hushed delivery is an interesting twist on a typically loud and rousing song, even if the overall sound might be a bit cut-and-dry on the whole. It’s all very pleasant and tastefully done, especially considering how minimalist it is, but sonically, it feels like these are ideas that work better on paper than explicitly on wax.

What’s nice about this EP above all, though, is how well these songs in particular has been reframed to fit the more solemn lockdown context. There’s a core of loneliness sketched out in We Built This City in seeing said city so still and desolate; meanwhile, there’s an angst and tiredness coming through on versions of The Ramones’ I Wanna Be Sedated and Avril Lavigne’s Complicated, the latter especially finding more pathos as a duet with Heights that captures a distance between her and Macleod so well. Again, Inbetween Days is a more notable outlier for how its interpretation feels significantly more literal in the lyrics as well as the performance, overall just feeling a bit detached from the vision the rest of the EP seems to be striving for. And make no mistake, even for just a brief set of covers, there is a vision here, as The Xcerts lend a similar depth and heart they bring to otherwise straight-laced pop-rock to get more out of what’s here. It goes without saying that it’s far from essential work from them – the feeling of looseness is pretty palpable throughout, particularly with the brief skit to close out the final track – but beyond those usual underscorings of covers projects that even a band like The Xcerts aren’t immune to, this is fine stuff. It’s not going to last the novelty, especially if the band are planning on releasing new original music anytime this year, but it’s good to have around. Even as the baseline of quality for The Xcerts, it’s actively difficult to dislike, and done well enough to where you wouldn’t really want to.

6/10

For fans of: Twin Atlantic, Deaf Havana, Charlie Simpson

‘So No One Told You Life Was Gonna Be This Way’ by The Xcerts is released on 15th January on Raygun Records.


LICE
WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear

The intrigue around LICE’s debut album feels more academic than anything. As yet another post-punk band flooded in acclaim from all the right sources (albeit one trending more towards noise-rock), they aren’t gripping on that level when they’re effectively just another singular drop among a flash flood. Rather, WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear sees an attempt at trying to do more with it, opening out into a short story with an accompanying pamphlet to reorganise a lot of the themes in a more legible manner. And really, that alone should set some alarm bells going off, given that WASTELAND… achieving the most when paired with supplementary material is a sure-fire tell of an album that really struggles to work on its own. It’s partly a case of the format itself, especially when the pamphlet does more to delineate certain character roles within the story and format some of the prose when necessary, something that an album is simply unable to do, but the narrative itself is one that LICE seem to get tangled in more than they should. In what’s described as a ‘satire about satire’, and an examination of discourse in song lyrics that rarely elevates above a surface level, and seems to slough off the nuance that’s expectedly demanded of them, you get the impression that LICE roughly know what they’re talking about but don’t have the means in which to make it fully work. It’s worth noting that the pamphlet is more helpful on the likes of Arbiter and Clear in how the narrative voices change across the course of the individual tracks, but there’s also a good number of instances where things are opened up too much, and the central thread of the album becomes muddled amidst the swathes of highfalutin filler that really doesn’t go anywhere. There’s ambition here, particularly when it comes to how abstract and wide-reaching some of the concepts within the central narrative can be, but the fact it only really clicks thanks to accompanying literature (which, honestly, is more stimulating than the album itself) is a pretty damning flaw in LICE’s overall execution.

Regardless though, there’s definitely an audience for whom WASTELAND… will unequivocally appeal to, namely those who’ve taken the dive into post-punk’s modern wave long ago, and are looking for something on the more experimental side of things to satiate themselves. This isn’t an album occupying the same spaces as sharper fare from Idles or Fontaines D.C., instead boring down into more cavernous, implacably bleak noise rock that the short story format actually helps along a good amount. There’s very little in the way of an earworm melody or a true hook here, and it’s somewhat good that LICE use that to their advantage in how crushing they keep everything. On top of building their own noise intoner to create an even more caustic brand of darkness, there’s the usual implacable void of production that’s suitably weighty, and does make the atmosphere at lot more dread-filled. It’s where WASTELAND… ultimately works the most, with Alastair Shuttleworth having the usual sonorous timbre of a post-punk singer to drive it down even further. As an album that’s not really designed to have the same mainstream-adjacent appeal as others in its lane, it allows WASTELAND… to get away with more things like that, where the inaccessibility is more a feature than a flaw, and one that LICE do lean into rather well for what they’re trying to do. That being said though, it means the album does drag, and for anyone except those who are deeply invested from the jump, there really isn’t much here that feels all that worth returning to or digging into more. It’s all interesting on paper, but less so in execution, and while praise deserves to go to LICE for really going the extra mile with what post-punk and noise-rock these days can be, they’ve not quite landed as smoothly or with as much force as they might have liked. The definition of an acquired taste, in other words, and even that might be being generous.

5/10

For fans of: Heavy Lungs, Crows, USA Nails

‘WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear’ by LICE is out now on Settled Law Records.


Viagra Boys
Welfare Jazz

If ever there was an argument for using post-punk as an aesthetic, it would be Viagra Boys. In a genre whose modern incarnations feel virtually tailored to being sardonic and sneering, Viagra Boys have found a way to bore into the depravity of it all, possibly to a greater extent than most, all while having a notably rough-edged and grimy exterior to match. It arguably makes them a more compelling act within their scene, in a fearlessness to embrace and project negative impulses that feels suitably raw and guttural on every level. Welfare Jazz, then, makes the most of how much of a bugged-out mess of an album it is by running for absolute miles with it, not only in a sound that feels distinctly fresh for this stripe of post-punk, but also by leaning into its black comedy in a way that can be just as discomforting as it is absurd. Sebastian Murphy barges and tumbles through drug-doused relationships with a very boorish lack of tact and subtlety on Ain’t Nice and Toad before launching into sweaty nights of hedonism on Girls & Boys, with the self-destructiveness of it all made evident, as well as the charm and intelligence of how it’s told. There’s definitely a sense of ego in abundance here, but there’s an outright canniness in the lyrics that’s incredibly well done, particularly in how Murphy views his own crushing vices on Creatures. It’s also made evident on Welfare Jazz how great his dependency is, where the beliefs of being clean for just a week on I Feel Alive and settling down in a stable relationship on To The Country are still underscored with real dread. It’s the closer that really does this well too, a cover of John Prine and Iris DeMent’s In Spite Of Ourselves that has the playful humour and jabs of the lyrics over a curdled nightmare tableau in a way that reframes the mood absolutely excellently, signaling how sinister the codependency that’s being fallen into actually is.

But while the darkness and discord of Welfare Jazz is well telegraphed, it isn’t a dour album by any means. It’s another area where Viagra Boys’ command of levity and humour shines, where their visceral post-punk edge is coaxed through a number of genres and styles without feeling overly messy. It’s not a tight, compact album, given its liability to splatter discordant saxophone squeals all over the place, as well as throwing in interludes that really are the weakest part, but takes on ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll on Toad, slinky new wave on Creatures and even disco on Girls & Boys are all snapped into place by the recognisable motorik bass and guitar tone, only far beefier and with more punch. The formidable sound that Viagra Boys have keeps everything consistent, but it doesn’t pave over the various quirks and tics in each song, a wise move for a band with as much personality as they have, and one that really helps them stand out among other post-punk bands. They’ve got more of a raucous punk spirit on the whole, shown in a more direct fashion on a song like Secret Canine Agent, but also in how incendiary their creative process seems to be as a whole. Welfare Jazz has the bashed-out feel of a basement band who aren’t looking to stray too far away from there, but Viagra Boys’ vision and creativity are what really makes this pop, especially in how big of a role dark humour as a whole plays. It’s a fascinating little album that really just keeps giving on every listen, bound by steamrolling hooks and filled with real thought and intrigue that can still be ear-catching. It’s a shame that most post-punk isn’t this good, because more bands willing to head in the direction of Viagra Boys would be greatly appreciated.

8/10

For fans of: Idles, Iceage, Protomartyr

‘Welfare Jazz’ by Viagra Boys is out now on YEAR0001.


Passenger
Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted

Everything about Passenger post-Let Her Go has positively screamed ‘one hit wonder’, so releasing a new album in the early January deadzone feels all too appropriate. After all, what better time is there to put out an album of gaunt, emotionally-shallow indie-folk, from a singer whose abilities are limited at best and excruciatingly cloying at worst, and that won’t be remembered whatsoever once its release week has passed? Suffice to say, there’s never been much of worth with Passenger in his fleeting, flimsy glimpses of relevance, and Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted is no convincing reversal of fortune. In fact, it’s hard to deduce any clear endgame here; it surely can’t be that Passenger is actively out to prove that his music offers some of the most wet, milquetoast listening experiences possible. It really is the whitest form of gentrified folk, not ornate enough to be schmaltzy but lacking any notable warmth or texture to be considered raw. As always, it’s almost offensively inoffensive and middle-of-the-road, and even at its musical best like on What You’re Waiting For, never going beyond a pithy folk-pop jaunt that’s still devoid of any personality. It’s about as quintessential as musical wallpaper gets, to the point where barely anything even attempts to stick out among a very shallow, muted mire that doesn’t even have variety to help it. It’s just a profoundly boring album to sit through, with all the best parts of folk glossed over by production that clearly wants to wedge Passenger back into a pop scene that he only initially hit through a fluke.

Even then though, none of this would even pass as the same sort of novelty, because there’s just nothing here that’s worth giving that level of attention to. A title like Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted already feels like a play for the absolute broadest bracket of folk songwriting, and indeed, the lack of detail or interesting storytelling only highlights how mushy and flimsy these songs actually are. The flat platitudes of Tip Of My Tongue and The Way That I Love You are so insubstantial, and it never feels as though they’re actually trying to be meaningful as much as push through to the widest audience possible. Nothing about Passenger’s meek little warble projects sincerity, and while he tries to feign it in the puddle-deep veneer of vulnerability he puts on, it’s not believable. There’s already a very self-serving air to his prostration right from the start on Sword From The Stone, but in no way, shape or form can he convincingly portray a flawed, rough-around-the-edges burnout on Remember To Forget, nor do any of his stabs at emotional warmth or condolence feel genuine on Nothing Aches Like A Broken Heart. As an artist, he just has no range, and that’s only exacerbated by writing that’s similarly shallow but clearly wants to achieve more. It gets there partway on Sandstorm and Suzanne, though that’s really a relative comparison, and looking to dredge up whatever positives this utter slog can give. Because really, Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted just isn’t much of anything, and the fact that’ll likely be a surprise to no one is pretty much the punchline that writes itself. It’s going to forgotten, guaranteed, but it’s the overall pointlessness of it that feels like the greatest indictment, where Passenger is pushing on while not having advanced an inch, and still being as wet, weepy and depressingly boring as ever. It’s the first proper dud of 2021, but then again, it’s Passenger – who actually cares?

3/10

For fans of: Kodaline, Vance Joy, Tom Odell

‘Songs For The Drunk And Broken Hearted’ by Passenger is out now on Black Crow Records.


NEED
Norchestrion: a song for the end

For anyone who’s already excited about NEED’s new album, you really don’t need a review to tell you you’re probably going to like it. Chances are you’re deep enough into modern prog to actually be aware of this band, who’ve had some decent support slots with Fates Warning and Pain Of Salvation but are yet to fully break out of their native Greece, and thus you’ll recognise how squarely in the contemporary prog-metal box Norchestrion: a song for the end fits. It doesn’t help that the band know this either, as NEED end up under the oh-so-familiar umbrella of prog that’s technically savvy, but just feels kind of soulless in the execution. For one, it’s the sort of prog that’s more content with spiralling off into great elaborate passages without having much to anchor itself to; Nemmmortal comes the closest to having an actual hook, though the fact that NEED are so willing to drill down into their own endless streams of playing is evidence enough that catchiness probably wasn’t the first thought here. Indeed, for an album comfortably over an hour long, the benefits that any sort of accessibility could bring are distinctly marginalised. As a band, NEED certainly have a lot of skill, avoiding tired tech-metal progressions and even bringing in some deeper bass texture on a song like Beckethead, but when there’s nothing all that meaningful to do with it that can connect, it’s just yet another example of musical flexing with no payoff.

That isn’t precisely new for prog – hell, to even imply that would be grossly misleading – but NEED just feel so stuck in those ways when the limitations have been clearly telegraphed in the past. It really is just a lot to deal with, and going back to the well of 19-minute songs on Ananke that just appears to go on forever with nothing holding it together gets supremely tiresome in a hurry. NEED really do project a desire to fall in line rather than stand out on this album; the writing is the usual conceptual yet pulpy prog fare (complete with the hilariously bad spoken word interlude V.A.D.I.S that tries to squish about five different high concepts into one), and even in the production, the buzzy synths and generally blockiness in sound can make this even more of a chore. At least Jon Voyager has a good voice that might have more power than expressiveness or charisma, but he fits his role if nothing else. But then, that could really be applied to NEED as a whole, a genre band perfectly comfortable with staying that way, and subsequently gutting their appeal to anyone besides the most ardent of prog completionists. It’s tough to get actively annoyed about that – they can at least play well, and there are too many of these bands to single out NEED as anything special – but at the same time, another band pulling off this exact same formula is just more unnecessary than anything else.

5/10

For fans of: Dream Theater, Pain Of Salvation, Fates Warning

‘Norchestrion: a song for the end’ by NEED is out now on Ikaros Records.


Wall
Wall

Well that’s certainly an apt band name for this sort of riffy, pounding stoner-doom, but Wall actually operate on a significantly smaller level to some of their sonic peers. This is actually a lockdown project formed by Ryan and Elliot Cole, using their experiences as members of Desert Storm to knock out a quick EP specifically designed to kill some boredom. As such, it can be difficult to really evaluate a release like this when it’s not aiming too highly by design; hell, apart from a cover of Black Sabbath’s Electric Funeral, it’s an entirely instrumental project anyway. The deliberately condensed scope can make it feel somewhat limited then, but it’s not a bad little listen for what it is. As with all acts like this, the main draw comes in how well Wall can dish out a groove, and in terms of basic heft and the guitar and bass tones fed through it, there’s a lot to enjoy here. Perhaps the production could have a bit more of a gnarled edge to it to really hit harder, but as a solid showcase that’s a bit more than just a slow, methodical crush – see the change of pace on a track like Wrath Of The Serpent, or indeed Electric Funeral itself – pretty much everything is done decently well. It’s easier to get the sense of the acumen that Wall possess as longer-lived members of the scene, and even if it’s not massively pushing the envelope (but again, for the sort of EP it is, why would it?), that talent shines through pretty prominently.

That’s really where the conversation ends though, as Wall’s intentions of alleviating lockdown boredom really play into a lack of longevity that can weigh this EP down. For what’s effectively the product of messing around and laying down some riffs, the end result certainly feels like that in how it’s hard to see the material here lasting beyond the initial jolt. The fact that these are pretty condensed compositions as it is says quite a bit, especially when both stoner- and doom-metal are liable to spiral into cavernous opuses more often than not, basically putting a pin in an inherent slightness and – for lack of a better term – disposability. You’re not getting pulse-pounding enormity like this scene is usually wont to deliver, and when the more prominent releases of that format inevitably come through later in the year, it’s hard to see Wall’s profile sticking around amongst them. Really though, to imply that’s what the duo even want might be going a bit too far; for a quick and easy EP borne out of boredom, this is fine, and it’s hard to think of what more could really be done under those conditions. Judging it against the heavyweights might be missing the point, and on that metric, this is still a good listen until said heavyweights are ready to make their own returns. It won’t change the world, but to expect it to is ultimately expecting way too much.

6/10

For fans of: Karma To Burn, Black Sabbath, Earthless

‘Wall’ by Wall is released on 15th January on APF Records.


Words by Luke Nuttall

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