Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Leatherface - The Stormy Petrel

2010 was a pretty bleak year in this rocking world, with Viva Death’s Curse The Darkness being the pick of the bunch with its jagged lines and insanity in the music. Hot on its heels was another album infused with madness, but it comes through the microphone of Frankie Stubbs rather than the hands of Scott Shiflett. Stubbs is one of rock’s most beloved crazy mumbling old granddads, and while he may never write something quite as warped as Dog Disco’s “Red Diesel”, his gravelly tones and obscure lyrics are backed as strongly as ever by a solid wall of rock that rarely wavers, unlike the man’s fashion sense, which saw him looking like Fidel Castro around this period.

“God Is Dead” plods forth to open proceedings, and while it’s not horrible, it doesn’t really let us into the strengths of The Stormy Petrel. It lays the formula bare and exposed, with a heavier bias on one line refrains and the switching of gears with guitar moods. While the dual guitars on the BYO Split Series Volume 1 release and Horsebox album maintained a stoutness through most of the material, and Dog Disco had been particularly aggressive, the return of founding member Dickie Hammond to the outfit sees two fairly distinctive feels. The Stormy Petrel doesn’t snarl like its predecessor at all on the majority of its songs, and the sound usually steps clearly from gentle and nice to a bit less gentle and nice and a bit fuller, and back again.

“My World’s End” is an early enough encroachment into this pattern that you’re halfway through the album before you’ve decided what the general sound is. The aggression isn’t as explosive as the previous record, and it’s further hampered by an increasingly hoarse Stubbs, and the efforts of the new rhythm team being squashed. Bassist Graeme Philliskirk and drummer Stefan Musch aren’t exactly inaudible, but you feel that they’re mixed down too much, with the exception of one rattling hat on Musch’s kit, which you notice all too much while it’s there and all too confusingly when it’s gone and you hear how much quieter the rest of his kit is. Nevertheless, the overall ominous effect is achieved, and it’s a decent track that kicks the album into life a bit more where “God Is Dead” couldn’t quite manage.

This is one of those albums where the meat is in the middle. Not necessarily all the best bits, but where the sound of the album is imprinted. “Never Say Goodbye” was considered a focus track, and it has a reasonable pace, a distinctive guitar piece that sets itself apart as a lead guitar, typical melodies, halfway sane lyrics, and a sort of catchiness. Back in the 90s, the band would release this as a single like “Do The Right Thing” or “Not Superstitious”, but alas, the world had moved on, the music world had moved gradually online, and John Peel was too busy resting in peace to back the band, so no such release materialised. Like the aforementioned singles, there isn’t much about this song that stands out, it’s simply one of the band’s more refined songs. Apart from being a little bit more charming, toothless, and radio friendly, this song is very much a representation of the album’s sound.

As it happens, most of the best cuts are indeed in the middle. “Nutcase” features buoyant ascents and descents, a steady driving beat, more energy, and the return of some hallmark crazy lyrics. The cold curry breakfast from “Bakelite” is recalled, and a catchy chorus seals the deal for one of the album’s shortest pieces. “Broken” follows and slows things right down, with a simple guitar riff opening up and stealing the show from the rest of the whole album. Like “Nutcase” before, it benefits from not hanging its coat on one line, and another great chorus with well timed backing vocals, along with great build-ups, ensures that a sense of power stays with the song despite its pace, and makes it the pick of the record. Without stalwart drummer Andrew Laing in the band for the first significant time, the backing vocals on the record are unsurprisingly restrained, but Hammond and Philliskirk deliver when it counts. The rhythm section feels like it has gained momentum too, with the bass given room to breathe on both songs.

“Another Dance” follows, and unfortunately doesn’t build on the success of its predecessors, finding itself somewhere between the opener and “Never Say Goodbye”. A nice but forgettable opening riff gives way to simplistic guitars and bland vocal melodies, and a decent wind down and wind up unfortunately only leads to more of the same. “Diego Garcia” is much more interesting, with an initial lead guitar that recalls At The Drive-In, more politically charged lines (expressing sympathy to the relocation of inhabitants in the name of the United States building a military base on the British-owned atoll), and an excellent breakdown where the backing vocals shine.

Next on the menu is “Monkfish”, which is a steady, if unspectacular track. It’s fairly sulky, with Stubbs’ lyrical lunacy punctuated with a couple of unconvincing whoops (did they ever fully recover from accidentally mixing those screams into “How Lonely”?). The chorus, which barely avoids being a monolinear refrain, is a nice change up that gives the song some substance, if not style. “Disgrace” follows, and is a bit on the strange side. A level of aggression is displayed unlike anywhere else on the record. It may not match the level of “Red Diesel” or “Rabbit Pie Alibi”, but it sounds like it could be a slightly slower “Dustbin Modo”, with a snarling riff and Stubbs cramming in lines where lines don’t fit, with more swearing than usual. Next thing you know, you’ve got a cheery one line chorus that’s a complete non sequitur at first, and the second time through the song appears to lighten up, although it’s a short enough song that it doesn’t really last.

The album certainly hasn’t taken a nosedive by this point, but does sound a little thin on ideas. Luckily for us, a couple of strong cuts ensure that things don’t tail off. “Belly Dancing Stoat” chugs along quietly, and aside from more intricate riffs, manages to succeed without anything spectacular. The songs build up nicely, nothing’s leaned on too heavily, the backing vocals are again used well, and there’s an excellent dynamic without any pace changes being used. “Isn’t Life Just Sweet?” isn’t actually an original piece of music. An unreleased instrumental recorded during the sessions for their half of BYO Split Series Volume 1, tentatively titled “Unfurnished”, is rerecorded, tinkered with, and has lyrics applied to it. It’s not a bad song, but although the instrumental sounded like it needed words, “Isn’t Life Just Sweet?” doesn’t convince me that Stubbs found the right ones. The instrumental break which had originally featured a nicely building if unspectacular dual lead sounds more like a three-step building dual rhythm here. If you know “Unfurnished” you might be a little underwhelmed, but otherwise it’s a solid track.

“Hope” finishes the album in an unusual style. The extra instrumentation used gives it a sort of seafaring air, which probably has something to do with the title of the record. However, it’s not the strongest way to finish the record, and hearing Stubbs using the perpetually annoying cheap walkie-talkie vocal effect in the verses is particularly disappointing. Yet another solitary line makes up the chorus, and while it’s not the worst on the album, that it’s used as much as it is, particularly when seeing out the album, really drives that particular weakness of the record home. The music, for its oddities, isn’t so bad, and had the verses been stronger and sung through a microphone instead of an answering machine, I would probably be praising “Hope” as a nice closer.

With half a dozen years gone by, and with Stubbs the only member of the band since Dog Disco performing here, it was inevitable that The Stormy Petrel would sound significantly different. While undoubtedly one of the finest records to come out of 2010, it doesn’t stack up that brilliantly as a piece, and I wouldn’t rank it as highly as Mush, Minx, Horsebox, the split disc, or even Cherry Knowle or Dog Disco. That being said, this has just as many, if not more, great tracks on it than any of the aforementioned. The songs are of such strength that I couldn’t strip away a couple of bland tracks and rearrange to come up with a shorter but better album, and am simply left grinding my teeth over the flaws that prevent this from being a genuinely great album. With all said and done, if you’re in the mood for some good solid rock without wanting to listen to a full album as a singular experience, The Stormy Petrel is as good an addition to your shelf as any.

Personal picks: Broken, Nutcase, Belly Dancing Stoat
Picks for others: Broken, Diego Garcia, Never Say Goodbye
Relative weaknesses: God Is Dead, Another Dance

01 – God Is Dead
02 – My World’s End
03 – Never Say Goodbye
04 – Nutcase
05 – Broken
06 – Another Dance
07 – Diego Garcia
08 – Monkfish
09 – Disgrace
10 – Belly Dancing Stoat
11 – Isn’t Life Just Sweet?
12 – Hope