For Fans Of
Over Twitter in November 2016, Rou Reynolds, in response to the vapid, omnipresent pop music landscape, the batshit insane U.S. election season and the surprising outcome of his country’s Brexit vote, he stated that “Our next album will bring our message to the masses. I want to reach as many people as possible. We will give this EVERYTHING. No more self indulgence“. “We’re coming for you narcissistic pop. We will replace you.”
True to the singer’s words, Enter Shikari’s latest genre/paradigm-shifting LP, ‘The Spark‘, makes good on those sentiments. As those tweets really contextualise and explain the stronger focus on poppier sensibilities, larger melodic currents, warmer instrumental tones and widely more accessible sounds found here. After all, the “masses” wouldn’t really go for songs like ‘Sssnakepit‘, ‘Hoodwinker‘, ‘OK, Time For Plan B‘, or ‘There’s A Price On Your Head‘, would they? No, no they don’t, and they didn’t, as history shows. Definitely not to the extent that newer audiences (i.e. the aforementioned masses) may come to lap up new songs like the pure anthem that is ‘The Sights‘, the stadium-filling ‘Undercover Agents‘, and the lively, cynically upbeat energy of ‘Live Outside‘. Basically, think of this new record as being more akin to ‘Redshift‘ and ‘Dear Future Historians‘ rather than one characterized by ‘Hoodwinker‘ or ‘Anaesthetist‘. (God, what a fuckin’ banger).
Not surprising to their previous releases, these lads have done what they always do (no, not close their eyes and hope for the best), but switch up sounds and ideas to create another varied release. Of course, Enter Shikari’s past sounds are present and accounted for across this new effort. Not all of them, mind you, but just enough that this record isn’t quite some ridiculous 180-degree shift from out of nowhere.
Reynolds‘ distinct singing voice is just as powerful as ever and while he does deliver some impassioned screams and yells of old (see: the bridge of ‘Live Outside‘, the ends of ‘An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Pieces‘ and ‘Shinrin-yoku‘), he and his bandmates also dish out a ton of falsetto and baritone backing vocal parts; more so than ever before. Drummer Rob Rolfe’s genre-hopping beats are still present, though they’re far more real sounding this time in terms of their tone, yet his playing hasn’t been sacrificed for that. Rory Clewlow’s guitar output takes a more prominent centre-stage role throughout the record’s runtime and he isn’t just offering heavy chugs buried under the accompanying tightly wound drums and layers upon layers of vocals and wicked digital synths like their earlier work. Speaking of, another element that’s characterized Shikari’s ever-changing sound is the quantity and style of synths they so effectively use, and that remains true here. However, the hi-fi synth basses and churning low-end that’d make a THX intro jealous have been dialled back here, and while the remix-level of synths remain, they’re moulded with or even outright replaced by richer sounding analogue synths; which fittingly gel with this records lighter, softer nature.
Shikari’s slightly altered style aside, the integrity of their lyrics and message remains completely intact – the key distinction that really defines whether or not a band has sold out or not, and these guys most certainly haven’t. Of course, if these guys had any inkling to sell out (as I’ve seen some butthurt listeners accuse them of lately) they would’ve done so long before now and they also would’ve marked that first change, this year’s ‘Supercharge‘, by teaming up with someone far more popular and well-known than motherfuckin’ Big Narstie. I mean, the same people who got their rose-tinted knickers in a bunch over that new single from The Used are probably the same ones that have shat the bed over this new record’s sound too, but hey, that’s none of my business.
Anywho, the less-heavier direction heralded by ‘The Spark‘ is signalled right from the onset of the opening title track; a 50-second instrumental piece defined by fluttery layers of the brightest, melodious synths this band’s ever put down on record. This first track is but the rising sun of Shikari’s fifth album, one that begets the proverbial fire and smoke that will follow it, as well as the soft, near-death embers that will be heard once short ambient instrumental closer, ‘The Embers‘, arrives nearly half an hour later. After all, the very first song of each of their four other full-length records marks the tone, style, and mood of what will follow, and this is no different.
Sadly, as for the core songs situated between that initial opening spark and the final smouldering embers, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. For instance, there are some pretty cringey lyrics here and there that weaken their message; this album is quite sonically stripped back yet it also sounds quite over-compressed at times nor as impactful as previous releases; there’s one really odd track listing placement; one slightly inconsistent song; and one egregiously bad track that takes the cake for the band’s worst song to date. I’ll get to those grievances shortly, but on the positive side, ‘The Spark‘ continues to prove that this quartet won’t settle for just one genre and this release has also gifted me with what are three of my personal favourite Enter Shikari songs thus far.
Starting with the high positives and moving towards the low negatives (just like my past relationships), lead single ‘Live Outside‘ is basically the spiritual successor to that of ‘Wall‘ and is just as good as that deep cut banger was and is. The sharpish ‘Take My Country Back‘ is, perhaps unsurprisingly, about Brexit and carries the double meaning of taking England back from the Tories, regressive politicians and loud mouthpieces that spew forth hatred and bigotry, while also wishing to take the country forward in terms of expression, societal thinking and its values. Again, not surprising at all given their beliefs and the current political climate that the U.K. now finds itself in. Musically, however, the track echoes a very similar tempo and timbre of their damn fine ‘Rat Race‘ EP, namely that release’s brilliant titular track and the short but sweet circle-pit inducer and macabrely titled, ‘The Paddington Frisk‘.
The sublime ‘Shinrin-yoku‘ – named after a Japanese term meaning forest bathing in order to find tranquillity and calm one’s senses – utilises serene melodies and quieter instrumentation and as the song develops from its gorgeous starting point, it jam-packs in the many varied sounds that Enter Shikari string together upon each record; both light and heavy shades. ‘Shinrin-yoku‘ is basically Shikari’s figurative “Best Of” brilliantly summed down into one cohesive song. Lyrically, it does just sound like a post-yoga thought session by the group’s frontman, what with its opening spoken word segment. That being said, the song also features one of my favourite lines that this band have ever penned, which is “We are the dust on the stained glass windows/Trying to comprehend the cathedral“; a beautiful yet daunting ode to our small, finite place in the larger bewildering cosmos.
Oh, and I do award these four Brits some massive bonus points for musically quoting themselves here with a makeover of the ‘Jonny Sniper‘ interlude, something they also do later on with the horns on ‘An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Pieces‘ carrying over the vocal melody of “We drift apart” from ‘Redshift‘. (I’m sure there are more examples of this to be revealed, I just haven’t personally picked up on them as of yet). In fact, this self-quoting of their older work also appears in the lyrics, with the lines ‘Look what we’ve done to ourselves” on ‘Take My Country Back‘ referencing ‘OK, Time For Plan B‘ and in also name-dropping ‘Supercharge‘ at one point. Intermusicality is a great thing and more bands should do it, quite frankly.
Now, that other song I just mentioned, the grand and personally open-diary ‘An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Pieces‘, is one of the all-time faves I mentioned some few hundred words ago. Much like ‘Fanfare For The Conscious Man‘ and ‘Constellations‘ before it on their past records, the penultimate ‘An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Pieces‘ is a heart-skipping grandiose composition and is the true finale for this record. (I’m not really counting ‘The Embers‘ because it might as well not be there, to be quite honest). It’s a song that sees ‘The Spark‘ end on a real high note and is nothing short of epic, one that’s bolstered by the voice-breaking delivery of Reynolds as he vents his innermost emotional baggage before a final exhale of weary yet relieved breath.
Now settling into the record’s grey area, we have ‘Airfield‘. This song acts as an intimate lullaby of sorts and one that seems like the long lost brother of ‘Adieu‘… except it’s just not as good or as memorable as that older gem was. In fact, this song is rather oddly placed on the record, with it arriving at the record’s mid-point at track five. See, ‘Adieu‘ worked so well back on ‘Take To The Skies‘ because it succeeded 14 songs of genre-mashing electronic hardcore (excluding the haunting ‘Today Won’t Go Down In History‘, of course). Whereas here ‘Airfield‘ only supplies its parent record with a quieter dynamic pace when compared to the first handful of tracks and it soon becomes forgotten in favour of the better, larger-in-scope tunes that are just as touching and emotionally tinged, if not more so.
‘Undercover Agents‘ is a terrific example of how to continually build up a song higher and higher, with slowly gathering louder dynamics and more and more layers being stacked on top of each other, and is a track that reaches for the figurative stars with its towering choruses. While it’s a decent tune, remember those cringy lyrics I talked about earlier? Well, this is where such matters arise. Case in point, the chorus line of “I’m howling with the wolves/can you hear us now?” being followed closely up a childish backing chant of “awoo!“. It isn’t endearing, defiant nor does it create a sense of drive in my mind: it only makes me laugh and I imagine that that’s not the desired effect. This doesn’t fully write the song-off but it does hold it back a little.
Similarly, the rather cocky ‘Rabble Rouser‘ (a song about manufactured artists) channels the darker, creative bounces of ‘Tribalism‘ and ‘The Mindsweep‘, while showing off those essentially trademarked Shikari synths; the kind that wouldn’t have gone amiss from the ‘Havok‘ duo from 2009’s ‘Common Dreads‘. Yet the song’s chorus always feels like it’s building to something bigger, something better, yet that will forever be an empty David Cameron-like promise as such a moment never once arrives. Plus, Reynolds bark-like delivery of “Screw, screw, screw, screw” is cringy and a little silly, even still when Reynolds revisits the very same part right before the final chorus of ‘Undercover Agents‘, not two songs later. Shikari have always tackled real-world issues with their own brand of humour and sense of fun (‘Gandhi, Mate, Gandhi‘ anybody?) but here it doesn’t really work. Such consistent lyrical structuring and songwriting works much better on, say, ‘The Sights‘ (a great song by the way), where during the hook-ridden track’s bridge, Reynolds suddenly sings “…but fire up the rockets“, followed by a resonating scream of “Ascension!” as the band drop from space a final massive chorus right down on your noggin.
Entering into the real negatives now, the poor man’s James Bond opening credit-like instrumentals in the verses of ‘The Revolt Of The Atoms‘ and its bland-as-fuck choruses only add to it being the weakest track on the entire album. Seriously, it’s just laughably bad. It sounds like Enter Shikari were given a boring, cheesily written tongue n’ cheek rock song to cover for a live BBC session. The lyrical motif of our physical world’s very chemical makeup revolting against us humans due to our fuckin’ abysmal nature is par for the course for lyrics, but boy, this track is the worst of the lot!
To repeat myself from earlier, this record is a bit of mixed bag with some truly great highs and a couple lowly, shortcomings. Much like their 2007 debut, ‘Take To The Skies‘, I think the good definitely outweighs the bad here, but ‘The Spark‘ just isn’t their best work. But hey, at least this will likely age far better than their debut.
Much like our real world, Enter Shikari are at a very different point as to where they were ten years ago when ‘Take To The Skies’ originally touched down. That being said, ‘The Spark’ is not a gamechanger for rock/heavy/alternative/pop music; it is not a record that will change the course of our world; nor is it Enter Shikari’s best record. It is simply a passionate release that reminds one to be loving and compassionate among these dire and trying times; to push one’s self to be, do and think better; and is a record that is indeed full of heart and some truly great songs. But along this bright, melodic path to utopia, there are a couple pitfalls that mar the scenery along the way, sadly.
I do have an insane amount of love for the music that Enter Shikari create, but the back-to-back banging trio of ‘Common Dreads’, ‘A Flash Flood Of Colour’ and ‘The Mindsweep’ will forever remain their best bodies of work I feel. However, just as Reynolds states on ‘An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Pieces’, “I may backtrack on these words one day/I may orphan what I’m about to say“, time will truly tell how high or low this record comes to eventually sit on the scale of the band’s discography for yours truly. But right now, it’s a solid release and that’s all my telling can offer, really.
1. The Spark
2. The Sights
3. Live Outside
4. Take My Country Back
6. Rabble Rouser
8. Undercover Agents
9. The Revolt Of The Atoms
10. An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Pieces
11. The Embers
‘The Spark’ is out now, pick it here if it tickles your fancy.