A not-so sleepy, sci-fi affair.
I’ll start this review out with two qualifications: 1) I’m an absolute sucker for a concept album; and 2) I’m also a massive sci-fi nerd. So, when I opened up the promo stream for U.K. outfit We Never Learned To Live’s second album, 'The Sleepwalk Transmissions', you can probably guess that I was quite excited to find this explanatory tid-bit from vocalist, Sean Mahon:
“I’ve wanted to write a sci-fi short story for a long time and lyrically ‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions’ is kind of the result of that transposed into lyric form… I am a huge Philip K. Dick fan (‘Retreat Syndrome’ is one of his shorts) and I wanted this album to have a bit more of a fictional edge inspired by his works.”
Science fiction themes and old mate “let’s do some psychedelics and write weird shit” PKD? Hell yes! Sign me the fuck up!
Musically, We Never Learned To Live sit in that mid-2000's wheelhouse of brooding, cerebral post-hardcore: think delicate lead progressions, roaring verse-chorus dynamics and wordy lyrical concepts in the vein of genre stalwarts like Thursday and Hopesfall. Or, in their own words via Bandcamp: “Post-rock inspired cathartic misery.” And right from the get-go, ‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions’ positions the listener directly into this frame of mind.
Opener ‘Permafrost’ charges out of the gates with Gary Marsden’s booming drums and plaintive guitar lines from Brett Houslop and David Kane, fostering a dreary and contemplative atmosphere, before Mahon bursts in with mid-range screams and the occasional high note. It makes for a captivating listen early on, picking up the pace with urgent and aggressive guitar passages as the song hurtles towards its inevitable climax. As the album progresses, We Never Learned To Live oscillate within this mode, pairing catchy short numbers for moodier, long form compositions: the soaring choruses of ‘Luma Non Luma’; the spacey, melodic undercurrent of ‘Android Anaesthetist’; the sprawling guitar interplay of ‘Human Antenna’; and the towering crescendo of ‘The Clocks’. It’s a real testament to Mahon’s lyricism, and the pedigree of songwriting on display from We Never Learned To Live overall, that lines like “passenger of the self” ('Luma Non Luma) and “synaesthesia shaping my lungs around/Let the digimeds carry you away” ('Android Anaesthetist') become the backbone of the album’s strongest hooks.
[caption id="attachment_1106987" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] We Never Learned To Live.[/caption]
Moving through to Side B of the record, ‘Wounds Like Wires’ might just be the heaviest cut with an absolutely pummelling rhythmic mid-section from Marsden and bassist Mark Portnoi, propelled along by chaotic, discordant riffage from Houslop and Kane. Yet as quickly as that storm hits, it’s suddenly gone, with the track descending into a drawn-out, elegiac conclusion. It’s this type of dynamic sleight-of-hand (alluded to previously by their nod to a love of post-rock) that allows We Never Learned To Live to transcend the boundaries of traditional songwriting and keep their unique blend of post-hardcore exciting.
One of the most surprising aspects of ‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions’ is just how much it made me nostalgic for other bands and records I loved, without falling into the trap of ‘carbon copy’ territory. There’s a vocal refrain that Mahon echoes on ‘Retreat Syndrome’ which had me thinking of lines from a deep cut on Funeral For a Friend’s 2008 album, ‘Memory and Humanity’ (easily their most underrated record), which I just couldn’t quite place. ‘Owari’ builds into this lush, powerful soundscape, the kind that recalls The Bled’s ‘Asleep on the Frontlines’ from 2007’s incredible ‘The Silent Treatment’ LP, and ‘Owari’ is definitely an album highlight. It’s also worth noting just how great the sequencing is on this record (a point that has become much more pedantic for me with older age). Every shorter track on the album is balanced by a longer, more expansive cut, which serves two purposes within the Side A/B structure: it helps to showcase the bands’ full dynamic range, whilst keeping the listener in a form of constant tension, as we continue to be drawn into the subtle ebb and flow of Mahon’s sonic sci-fi narrative.
As a closing pair, ‘Digitalis’ and ‘Radio Silence’ help to balance the record's themes and provide a fitting send-off. Here, the former song rolls with wave after wave of harmonised crests and thrumming troughs, whereas the latter ends with delicate hung notes and instrumental wanderings, sliding expertly back into the charge of ‘Permafrost’. Thus turning eleven tracks into a cohesive, post-hardcore time-capsule.
In the press release for ‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions,’ vocalist Sean Mahon describes the intent behind the record’s themes:
“The key ideas the album explores are modern day loneliness, differing realities, the connection of man and machine, our addiction to moving pictures, you get the picture. But it’s definitely not intended to be a preachy, anti-technology, anti-millennial charge… more just an exploration of what lies in store.”
On their second full-length, Mahon and co. have crafted a vibrant and complex soundscape for engaging honestly and authentically with the anticipation of what lies beyond our present human age. And as far as catharsis and misery go, We Never Learned To Live are peddling some of the best in the business right now with their new LP. They're well and truly on their way to affirming their place in the greater post-hardcore pantheon.
‘The Sleepwalk Transmissions’ is out on May 10th via Holy Roar Records - find physical & digital copies here.