Taking their name from George Dangerfield’s politically-charged novel, Portsmouth quintet The Strange Death of Liberal England could not appear more pretentious if they tried. But, then again, this is a band renowned for never saying a word to their live audience, and continually swapping instruments throughout their set. The music better be bloody good.
Most fortunately, the extent of this band’s bloody goodness is enough to make your head spin. True, comparisons to Arcade Fire come screaming at you from all angles, but there is something so epic and so heartfelt about the songs showcased here, that it seems imperative to view the group as contemporaries, not imitators. Added to that, hardly anybody can manage a sound like Arcade Fire, and these five youths produce a choral enormity in places here that is nothing short of sensational. Contenders for best new band of 2007, this surely is.
Having not a clue who is doing what over the course of the LP, I need only say that the musicianship and vocal work of Adam Woolway, Andrew Wright, Andrew Summerly, Kelly Jones (no, not him) and Will Charlton is extraordinary in its depth and dexterity. Opening track Modern Folk Song, which is not unlike the opening to Jeff Buckley‘s Grace, quickly demonstrates the breadth of talent that we are accompanied with here. As the drums and a screeching electric guitar kick in, the vocals multiply with blinding force, soon reaching an encapsulating choral hook. This trait is used again and again, as can be heard in the poppier lead single Oh Solitude, but always it achieves its aim of lifting the music around it into the realm of the otherworldly.
A key factor in the success of this album is restraint, and this is showcased perfectly with following track A Day Another Day. Opening with gentle xylophone, a dark and sombre feel slowly swells into being. When the drums finally do arrive, it is to provide a marching beat that threatens to burst into exuberance at any point. But it doesn’t, and the band instead choose to extend the delightful melodies until their logical conclusion. Such a simple ploy, and yet one that is all too often ignored.
The same ideas are applied to standout track An Old Fashioned War, which expresses a deep anger within its upbeat Eastern feel. Beginning with the line “Senseless hope in everything is everything you’ve got”, an intensity builds as the tempo slowly begins to rise, culminating with an almost shouted chorus of “We’ve heard it all before”. But again, the building power of the song never throws itself into delirium, instead maintaining a sublime quality of musicianship until the very end. Ultimately, it is this maturity of song writing keeps the intrigue of this LP so deep, and puts TSDOLE ahead of so many others.
Things get louder with Mozart On 33, during which a dirty keyboard sound fuzzes out behind a particularly adept vocal track, before a traditional soldier’s march emerges with I Saw Evil. Combining lullaby-esque guitar, twinkling xylophone and wailing vocal, this is pound for pound the prettiest song on the album, and with a soaring apocalyptic guitar outro, the most inspiring ending.
As with the songs themselves, the LP swells to a glorious climax, beginning with the superbly dark God Damn Broke and Broken Hearted. Rumbling bottom-end piano links up with a practically shouted vocal here, as the band focus more on building up an intense threat than a sublime melody. The anger here is perpetuated further by lines such as “Television, radio, tells me all I need to know. Sell your soul, become a whore”, and as the beat thumps out into dissonance, the message is relentless.
But to lift some of the gloom, the album is closed by the simply beautiful melodic track Summer Gave us Sweets, but Autumn Wrought Division. In keeping with its childish title, this piece is wrought with melancholy, as guitars softly moan over a powerful string section. After near silence in the middle, the beat suddenly erupts into vibrant life, producing the kind of scorching exuberance that makes you want to scream out. If the live performances come anything close to this, then The Strange Death of Liberal England need never speak to their audience, safe in the knowledge that they have inspired all before them.