In 2018, the following sentence is a confession: I still really like brit-rock. Don’t get me wrong, the genre deserved everything it got; under the guise of alternative music and a rebel spirit, it connived with corporate interests to create some of the most plastic and regurgitated music ever made, hiding it all under the selfsame guise of edgy counter culture. When the jig was up, the house of cards that was brit-rock, whether its punk tinged machinations or the more bourgeoisie flirtations with pop, came crashing down. Or at least it did in certain circles, still concerned with “quality” or “innovation” and other such nonsense that don’t carry much weight in the real world.
But I was confessing; I still really like it. I like the morose style of vocals, I like the straight-forward guitar music, and I like the thin veneer of British depression and snark which coats it. And I love it when all of those elements are mixed with modern music, especially progressive rock. That’s a pretty specific formula but, luckily for me, Death and the Penguin have been working at it for a while now. Their most recent album, Anomie, releases today and it’s nothing but everything I’ve just described; at its core beats a heart that pumps The Clash, Manic Street Preachers and other early luminaries of the isle. But its veins and nerves are wholly progressive, creating a mesh of styles not unlike Agent Fresco in its resultant timbre and style.
If this all seems odd, a listen to “The Calving Shuffle”, the lead track from the album, is all that it takes. The thick bass, the hectic drums, the jaded vocals, all hark back to the days when brit-rock was ascendant. The overall vibe is of disaffected youth, of a sleek voice against “settled” society running in between elegant bass lines and drum jigs. These styles are alternated with more straight-forward, immediately pleasing tracks and sounds on one end and heavier passages on the other, passages which draw from even earlier in rock’s history, all the way to the 70’s and its psychedelia. To hear both, all you need to do is keep listening; “Colour In Me” is a great example of the former (and also “Misha Lives” or “Driftwood (God Loves a Bird of Prey)”. With its approachable beat, dreamy synths, and ephemeral backing vocals, it’s a rock ditty sure to win over your heart. If it doesn’t, the more math-rock adjacent guitar lines in the middle should do that.
But the other side of the coin, the harsher sound on Anomie, is more interesting to me. “Space 1998” might be the best track on the album; it starts like the aforementioned “The Calving Shuffle”, with a groovy and prominent bass line, but goes to all sorts of other places. Its second part is marked by vocals on the edge of screaming and synths channeling that 70’s tone I mentioned above; the chaotic result is nothing if not psychedelic rock, pleasingly out of place on this otherwise modern album. These are the touches that take what could have been a nice but generic sound and move it to higher places, making Anomie more than just enjoyable.
This also reveals the main weakness of the album, however: there just isn’t enough of that sound on Anomie. The whole middle of the album, except for a few exceptions, stays much tamer and more controlled, channeling the more melancholy/dreamy aspects of brit-rock. The result is a slow down in pace which means that I didn’t often get to the closing tracks of the album which are, admittedly, a bit better. If more of those harsher, weirder influences had taken a more prominent place on the album, it would have been brilliant. When they channel these different influences into the bed of brit-rock, injecting it with youth and verve, Death and the Penguin create an album that’s interesting and engaging. Doing that with brit-rock to any capacity in 2018 is down right admirable. But there’s not enough of it as a whole, leaving the album sometimes muddled and hard to get through. The potential is there though and if the band are wise, they’ll bring it to the forefront more and more as they go along.
[bandcamp width=100% height=120 track=3151287668 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small]
Anomie is being released today, Friday the 27th of July. You can head on over here to their Bandcamp to purchase it.