Outsiders in the true spirit of indie rock, Young Knives propel themselves further towards the outer reaches of otherness with their latest album – yet somehow end up delivering a record that feels closer to the zeitgeist than any of their previous releases. Their 2006 debut album, Voices Of Animals And Men, set them apart from their contemporaries with its eccentric edge, but it was an accessible record with its very English take on slacker rock. By the time of their last album, 2013’s Sick Octave, Young Knives had transformed as a band. Sick Octave was crowd-funded and the total creative control offered by that format made for an intriguing record, but one that wasn’t without its misfires and longueurs.
A whole seven years later the Leicestershire brothers are back, and Barbarians, with its maximalist approach and rather dark outlook, lands squarely at the intersection between the genre-fluid trend of contemporary indie and the 21st century grand narrative of the Anthropocene. It’s inspired in part by John Gray’s philosophical treatise Straw Dogs (a book that came out before Voices Of Animals And Men: perhaps Young Knives aren’t deliberately pitching themselves at current trends), which argues that the human race has irredeemably failed to make any real progress despite centuries of scientific advances and breakthroughs. In other words, we are nothing more than barbarians.
Barbarians is disorientating from the outset. Opening track Swarm buzzes like a bag of wasps, and it lurches out of the gate in full flow, as if the first few seconds of the master tape were accidentally bitten off. The lyrics veer from apocalyptic to quotidian, sometimes within the same sentence. Lines like “Pavements melting into pockets” and “Dinner ladies kept me in the basement” call to mind the non sequiturs of The Beatles’ Come Together but, while the nonsensical language might be a semi-political statement in both songs, the mood is certainly darker in Swarm.
Musically, Barbarians tends towards the heavy and even oppressive. It builds on Young Knives’ guitar band credentials but draws in other influences, such as faintly dubstep rhythms in I Am Awake and recent pop and EDM in the title track. Red Cherries staggers from woozy, syncopated psychedelia to nu-metal, occasionally even flirting with jazz; and Jenny Haniver (don’t make the mistake of putting the title into Google image search if you’re not strong of stomach) is off-kilter indie pop in the manner of alt-j. There are clear experimental forays throughout, but the overall impression is something far more consistent than Sick Octave.
Society For Cutting Up Men and What I Saw are two highlights. Both introduce drone-like elements and frantic percussion: the former sounds like it could be Talking Heads and Public Image Ltd racing to escape from the bagless vacuum cleaner in which they’ve somehow been trapped, while the latter might owe something to Afrobeat and Melt Yourself Down.
The album’s message might be pretty bleak, but at least Young Knives are self-aware enough to try on different voices, ventriloquising their doomsaying. In the title track, the key line is the fatalistic “I am barbarian, I can’t lie about what I am,” but in the closing What I Saw we are left with something more hopeful in “The clever ones will fight”. Barbarians engages with big ideas and real horrors; it’s political without being accusatory, and it’s learned without resorting to intellectual jargon or outright abstraction. It’s very much of its time but it might just be timeless enough that in a few years from now we’ll back and see it as a historical lens onto 2020. If we still have a world to look back from, that is.