‘Common Dreads’, a decade later.
Enter Shikari’s debut record, 2007’s ‘Take This To The Skies‘ is a sonically dated and stylistically youthful listen; adventurous, silly, and enjoyable, but ultimately just fine. Yet it’s indicative of the breakdown-loving, synth-heavy, key-mosh era of heavy music it was released within, and has aged terribly so. However, more importantly, despite the then-current trend of bad metalcore being split with even worse dance music, it’s a key album that showed the talent and promise of the then-young Hertfordshire group; that they were more than likely destined for greatness. As we all know now, that would come to fruition for Enter Shikari, with the first step on that huge journey being really undertaken with the release of 2009’s ‘Common Dreads‘, which recently hit it’s decade-old milestone. For ten years on and this record still sounds good, it still sounds fresh and it still feels relevant. In so many words, it’s a bloody solid album!
‘Common Dreads‘ was a release that kick-started a superb three album run for the charmingly creative and creatively charming U.K. quartet. One that was followed up by the well-produced, diverse and imaginative ‘A Flash Flood Of Colour‘ (2011) and then my own personal favourite album, the gargantuan earth-mover that was ‘The Mindsweep‘ (2015). Yet ‘Common Dreads‘ still holds up today as one of Enter Shikari’s finest hours. It’s an album that just gets better with each consecutive listen, which is why I’ve returned to it so frequently over the years since first stumbling upon it by complete accident back in 2009 and being completely blown away.
No two Enter Shikari records are ever the same. That quality is one of the most interesting and exciting things about them as a band, and ‘Common Dreads‘ hasn’t been copied or retraced over on future releases. Ditching some of the cliched electronic-metalcore shtick of their first LP, this second full-length doubled down on the band’s expansive tastes: seeing the group weave in moments of trance, dubstep, jazz, drum and bass, as well as new instrumentation and vocal styles. All for the better, though, as ‘Common Dreads‘ carried with it the most dynamic songwriting from the rising U.K. group at the time. This was their break-through, in many ways.
“And now the floodgates will open.”
Produced by the band themselves and Andy Gray, and released on their own DIY label, Ambush Reality, ‘Common Dreads‘ is an intensive mash-up of aggressive hardcore and DIY punk with rave and drum’n’bass parts. It takes what Refused and The Nation Of Ulysses did so many years earlier with their own merging of electronica and hardcore, and saw these young lads giving it a whole new modern twist. They were really onto something, for it still sounds so engaging and imaginative in 2019.
Liam “Rory” Clewlow’s guitars take a back seat in the mix (even with producer, SikTh’s Dan Weller, putting some additional guitars into the fray.) Excluding the acoustic picking in ‘Gap In The Fence‘, the bouncy hardcore chugs during the breakdown of ‘Solidarity‘, and the distorted chord progressions on ‘No Sleep Tonight‘, he played much more of a supportive role to these larger arrangements. However, it’s always done for the songs, never against them. Elsewhere, Rob Rolfe’s air-tight percussive mixture of jungle beats, thick grooves, punk blasts, and hardcore breakdowns is an utter delight throughout; showing his real dexterity as a drummer, always locking in tightly with Chris Batten’s four-string rumbles.
Then there’s singer Rou Reynolds, whose authentic and impassioned vocal delivery spearheads this super-charged record at all points, occasionally bolstered by Rory C and Chris providing backing vocals. The record highlights how much character Rou has a vocalist, how much energy he exerts as a frontman, but also how compassionate and well-spoken he is too, lyrically. Notice the sheer conviction in the lines he shouts loudly during ‘Step Up‘ and ‘Fanfare for the Conscious Man,’ the cheeky ways he elongates words and twists them in his mouth, like in the jazz section of ‘The Jester‘, or the primal yells and animalistic noises he makes over the chaos of ‘Zzzonked.’ (Funnily enough, that’s the first song I heard by Enter Shikari that fully sold me on them.) And that’s not even counting the utter smorgasbord of electronic sounds and synth arrangements that Rou and the band created here too.
“Here tonight, I clock a thousand heads/here to unite, through common dreads.”
In 2008, the global recession hit, people lost houses, economies went to shit, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that this informed the lyrical content for ‘Common Dreads‘. This turned Enter Shikari’s previously personal and metaphorical lyricism into pointed political topics. Here, lyrics grew more anti-capitalist, more hopeless, seeing the band take a strong pro-collectivist stance and expressing more altruistic values. United we stand, divided we fall, and all that jazz. Beforehand, their lyrics were conveyed via frequent metaphors, but in ‘Common Dreads‘, excluding ‘Wall‘, the band made no secret of what issues and concerns they were raising. And they haven’t turned their back on those beliefs since. Hell, the band’s mission statement of combating those who wish to divide us, of fighting for better unification and representation, can be found upon each of their following records. Even all the way up to 2017’s decent rock outing, ‘The Spark.’
While the music of ‘Common Dreads‘ was varied, so too was the album’s talking points. Whether it’s about getting out of your comfort zone and breaking down imposed barriers (‘Wall‘), about using unity to shut down the war-machine (‘Havoc B‘), or borrowing old English folk lore of giants cutting people’s hands off and turning it into positive-aggression (the non-repeating aggro oddity of ‘Antwerpen‘), there’s just so much that ‘Common Dreads‘ yearns to share. Enter Shikari had a chip on their shoulder and they wanted any and all to listen, whether those people agreed or not. Take the titular opening spoken-word piece, a call-to-arms against the world’s maddening systems, to wake up from unconscious drowning and do away with brands and labels to cultivate a better world. It’s a collaborative piece, spoken by the band, family members and fans sourced by their mailing list, all decrying “we must unite” in their native tongues. It’s a communal event, something that also describes Enter Shikari’s live shows.
Take the speedy, straight-up hardcore-punk and crashing synth washes of ‘Step Up‘, a heavy critique of Western free trade, where Rou directly expresses “sometimes I do wish apples were our currency, so then your hoarded millions would rot in their vault.” (I’ve always loved that lyric. Rou has always been an underrated word-smith.) ‘No Sleep Tonight‘, in a similar yet clear tone than that of underlying climate-change themes behind ‘Mothership‘, goes further in talking about the world’s current ecological status and oil companies lobbying scientists and experts into silence or lies. Something that would be later addressed on ‘Arguing With Thermometers.’ Whereas anti-war closer ‘Fanfare for the Conscious Man‘ tackles England’s (and the larger U.K.’s) involvement in various wars and the Middle East foreign policies; the battles that their government were and are choosing to engage in, and how that poorly reflects the country’s interests at large. With maybe the exception of ‘Shinrin-yoku‘s outro and the intro for’The Appeal & The Mindsweep Part I‘, ‘Juggernauts‘ features one of the most poignant, foreboding lines of any Enter Shikari yet: “the idea of community will be something displayed in a museum.”
“They’re gonna paste you up, cover you in wall-paper, screw shelves into you and call you a wall.”
‘Common Dreads‘ runs the gamut between many different musical ideas and song feels, yet it all works; it all comes together so beautifully and charmingly so. To put it simply, there aren’t many records out there that jump from trance-driven hardcore shenanigans (‘Zzzonked‘) and then over to intimate acoustic-ballads (‘Gap In The Fence‘.) Nor are there many releases from their scene that shift between trumpet-lead, modern day anti-war rock anthems (‘Fanfare For The Conscious Man‘) to weirder, jazzier, playful numbers with flute melodies (‘The Jester.’) And if there is, I can bet you all that they aren’t anywhere near as good as this banger.
The dubstep wobbles of ‘Havoc A‘ and ‘Havoc B‘, the latter coming complete with protest samples, never once feel superfluous or like their bloating the record as fleshed-out interludes. Even the dreamy but brief ‘Halcyon‘ – that leads smoothly into ‘Hectic‘ – feels required for the album’s flow. The same goes with how ‘Common Dreads‘ slides perfectly into ‘Solidarity.’ These all feel necessary; required interludes to better develop exactly what Enter Shikari were aiming for. This truly was Enter Shikari showing fans and the rest of the world what they could achieve as a band. That they weren’t just a one trick pony; that there was a larger vision at play. For the U.K. underground alternative music scene in 2009, an artistic statement didn’t get much bolder than this bad boy.
There’s honestly just so much to love about this album. The trance-meets-hardcore crashes on the serious-but-still-tongue-in-cheek ‘Zzzonked‘; the endearing, people-power choruses behind ‘Juggernauts‘; that mental build-up on ‘The Jester‘ before all hell breaks loose; the key-change and uplifting choruses of ‘No Sleep Tonight‘; the nostalgic vibes, dancey electro and light-hearted banter that drives ‘Hectic‘ forward; and the choir that beefs up the end of ‘Solidarity‘ (which has become a bonafide sing-along live ever since.) Every song here carries it’s own special tone and individuality, making the album feel so alive and unpredictable. A decade on, that quality hasn’t changed or diminished in the slightest.
“This is a draconian law, I protest.”
‘Common Dreads‘ really is a prophetic record: it’s content and message is just as relevant now as it was back in 2009. Just as I’m sure it would also be topical and effective if it were released further back in 1999 or even in 2029. ‘Timeless’ seems like a somewhat hyperbolic word for it, but Enter Shikari’s sophomore album is damn well looking to be that way with each new passing year.
Ten years later, ‘Common Dreads‘ is still standing tall and proud like a detailed, towering statue. Time may weather its hearty exterior, but the meaty, meaningful interior sure hasn’t lost its charm, impact, nor any of its relevance. It’s still just such a fun record to put on. So here’s to another ten years of our collective common dreads and Enter Shikari’s brilliant second record. Don’t waste the light, friends.