There has always seemed to be a sense of unfulfilled promise about UNKLE. As boss of the influential Mo’Wax label, James Lavelle was behind pioneering records such as DJ Shadow‘s Entroducing and early EPs by Air. His club nights were stuff of legend, and when word spread that Lavelle had formed his own band entitled UNKLE, surely we were in for something special.
While both of UNKLE’s albums have had moments of brilliance, they’ve also had a fair degree of filler. Debut Psyence Fiction was just too sprawling, while the follow up Never, Never Land was too full of meandering synth songs that never really seemed to go anywhere.
The first sign that War Stories marks a change of direction for Lavelle’s group is the choice of co-producer. Chris Goss, the man who could safely be said to have invented stoner rock with his band Masters Of Reality, shares production credits with Lavelle here, and the result is UNKLE’s most ‘rock’ record yet.
The sound here is epic and widescreen, with album opener Chemistry incorporating urgently pounding drums, string sections, and huge guitar riffs. It sounds almost ominous, as if something appalling’s about to happen, but the band are determined to party before it does.
Although this is UNKLE’s most explicitly ‘rock’ record yet, Lavelle’s background means that you can dance to it as well, none more so than in Restless, the collaboration with Goss’ mate Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age. Marrying an ultra-funky bassline with Homme’s gruff vocals, it’s pretty much the perfect dance/rock hybrid. Building up and up to an unstoppable momentum, it’s a superb highlight, and ironically enough, better than anything on the last QOTSA album.
The Cult‘s Ian Astbury pops up for the almost apocalyptic sounding Burn My Shadow, with Astbury sounding a far cry from the man who howled his way through She Sells Sanctuary. His vocals are subtle, only bellowing the chorus when he needs to – the sense of restraint added to the surging feel of the track only adds to that whole rather menacing feeling.
The deliriously stomp of Mayday is another highlight, featuring vocals from The Duke Spirit‘s Liela Moss, while Lavelle himself makes his singing debut on Hold My Hand (sounding a deadringer for The Charlatans‘ Tim Burgess).
But as ever with UNKLE, War Stories fails to fulfill his promise into a truly great album. For every superb moment (the creepy Twilight featuring Massive Attack‘s 3D), there’s also moments of blustering, anonymous rock or atmospheric pieces such as Price You Pay which go on for far too long.
It also starts, after a while, to all sound a bit similar. In small doses, the menacing strut of the album is fantastic, but after a while it all becomes a bit wearying and a bit, well, depressing to be honest. It’s frustrating, because when Lavelle and Goss take things down a notch, such as on the Autolux-starring Persons & Machinery, the results are startling.
There are enough excellent moments on War Stories to judge it a success, but there’s another sense of missed opportunity hanging over the album. Hopefully UNKLE’s fourth album will be the moment that it all comes together for them.