It says something about Levellers’ commitment to their cause that the band have been a going concern for almost a quarter-century. Having formed in Brighton in 1988, they’ve experienced just two personnel changes. It’s also telling that the group have remained relevant through all that time. Their folk-punk struck a chord with the British record-buying public in the 1990s, and readers of a certain age may remember that they topped the charts with their fourth album in 1995. Zeitgeist was their commercial peak, but their last album, 2008′s Letters From the Underground, reached the Top 25. They have enjoyed a fruitful career so far, and one can expect their stock to rise further with the release of Static On The Airwaves.
The times we live in are filled with such turmoil that it is a blessing that bands like this still exist. There has been a real dearth of songs that manage to accurately keep up with the (ahem) zeitgeist, and it doesn’t seem like many contemporary bands have the guts to address pressing issues in a way that’s meaningful. It’s tough to write a good protest song, but Levellers have always been politically-minded; it’s in their blood, and these are their blood tunes. Within a minute of the album opening, their stall has been set out: “Our fate is written, the die is cast, but we will not go easy!” The confidence that lies within the 49-second title track is electrifying. From there, the band move onto We Are All Gunmen, a song in which the band, through the strong and confident voice of Mark Chadwick, outline their vision of an ideal world, but lace it with a biting irony: “Everyone drinks socially, not because they’re crippled emotionally, and all our sleep is trouble-free, wrapped up in caring arms.”
Cutting lyrics such as these are often delivered over a mid-tempo backing; for an album whose lyrics show restraint, it comes off as being more measured than might be expected, most notably on the tender love song Alone In This Darkness, which paints a wonderfully intimate picture of a relationship. But there are faster-paced moments too. The instrument that takes centre stage on Static On The Airwaves is, without a doubt, Jon Sevink’s fiddle. It’s at its most effective when it’s rattling along at an impressive speed, as on the unbelievably catchy single Truth Is, or Our Forgotten Towns; on the latter, it utilises driving rhythms and melodic invention to great effect, as Chadwick pulls no punches with his polemic: “These are our forgotten towns /Slowly raised, but quickly drowned /One more community implodes /You’re nothing; nobody, just another barcode.”
In truth, Static On The Airwaves could use more songs like that. Levellers may have moved away from their earlier, folk-punk material, but these days they rein themselves in more often than not. No matter how good slower songs like Mutiny and No Barriers are, they don’t compare to the songs on which the sextet take a full-on approach. The album’s closing track, a rousing arrangement of The Recruiting Sergeant (a traditional air given a modern, anti-war twist, not to mention a set of scathing new lyrics) is a great example of this, but it’s the only song on the album’s back half on which they really let loose. They don’t lack conviction, and their 10th album contains their best work in years, but it has pacing problems which drag it down and keep it from fully achieving its goals.