West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
, June 12th, 2009 15:37
Four songs into Kasabian's third album, and I'm starting to think that — whisper it — this could be the long-player they've been threatening to make all along. This happens specifically at the point where the frantic, electronically-unhinged mania of 'Swarfiga' gives way to 'Fast Fuse' (which was first released as an EP in 2007), a bulging, defiant kung-fu kick of a song that's quite clearly the best thing they've ever recorded. And for some reason all I can think of is the time I was caught in Cardiff's main thoroughfare, Queen Street, in a bona-fide monsoon. On that occasion I witnessed a battle of will between a street-preacher and his maker: as sane, God-fearing folk scurried indoors, the bearded, wild-eyed desperado stood there in the sheet-rain like a lightning rod. He howled at the gale, the sheer force of which walked a sandwich board past him and away down the street, as if it too deemed him beat. It was fearsome stuff.
Fearsome, Kasabian are not — or at least haven't been. They've always talked the good fight, name-dropping influences that indicate impressively wide-ranging listening habits and promise interesting results. But they've only released music that's fallen some way short of the psychedelic brew you — and deep down, probably they — actually hoped for. They’ve shown promise, sure, but they always appeared to be simply too ham-fisted and too indebted to their forebears to get past obvious broad strokes and hollow sentiment.
On West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum, though, there's an unmistakable intent. A palpable peculiarity hovers beneath much of the bravado; it's also apparent in the sleevenote images of straightjackets, mental health assessments, band member mugshots superimposed over one other . . . it's all a little uncomfortable. And when this theme bleeds into the music, one might start to think that things have gone nearly full-circle and arrived at that folly of self-absorption, the 'concept album'.
Well, West Ryder... stops some way short of that — there's too much here that sits comfortably within Kasabian's well-established boundaries to drag things dramatically out of shape. But at least a handful of tracks are artfully worked together, or sufficiently skewed to give intriguing nods towards both Surrender-era Chemical Brothers and classic 60s psychedelia — the work of the (genuinely unstable) Syd Barrett in particular. Take 'West Ryder Silver Bullet' for example. It starts with a grainy monologue about "Going down into the basement where my friend, the maniac, busies himself with his electronic graffiti", before an Ennio Morricone-esque landscape unfolds before us. Sin City's Rossario Dawson guest duets and an eerie eccentricity cuts right through to the heart of the song, with its tingling chimes, haunted backing vocals and a bowed guitar sounding its death knell.
Indeed, behind many songs here there are splices of samples and looping motifs that serve both to meld the tracks together and give an impression of flitting focus. Producer Dan The Automator has done a remarkable job of fusing a range of textures together. He's also succeeded in flushing out and beefing up some of the rhythms in ways that only a producer from a hip hop background could. ‘Secret Alphabets’ merges from a synthesized haze before settling into that classic DJ Shadow kick-beat to which you can't help but walk like a strutting king. In a similar, if more straightforward vein, the beat-heavy opening track 'Underdog' has already been featured in an advert (for Sony Bravia) and packs a massive, populist punch.
It's a little strange that Kasabian have been written off in some quarters with the kind of surety that leaves small room for re-evaluation. Such entrenchment of opinion is similar to that which in 1925 saw three-time presidential nominee and creationist advocate, William Jennings Bryan, argue against the idea that man was a mammal at the infamous Scopes 'Monkey' trial. Righteous reaction to Kasabian is attributable in large part to a general critical retreat from Oasis and — more crucially — their perceived descendents. But Kasabian's supposed musical demagogy is, in reality, a far cry from the tepidity of the brothers Gallagher; principal songwriter Serge Pizzorno has always been more musically indebted to Primal Scream.
And, true enough, a whole lot of Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR flows through the veins of West Ryder.... Though impressive, 'Where Did All The Love Go' and 'Vlad The Impaler' suffer for being so beholden to a ten-year-old blueprint that the best they can do is approximate. Many of the criticisms made of Primal Scream can be levelled at Kasabian: Tom Meighan's voice remains a hurdle; optimism and attitude carry it through, rather than any innate talent. And lyrically they have a tendency, not uncommon in commercially successful bands, of appearing to write about everything while in actual fact writing about nothing at all; vague rockisms, rehashed phrases — they all get rolled out here.
To an extent these gripes miss the point, because Kasabian aren't and never will be a band that values their message over their music. They operate on a baser level, more attuned to music as rhythm, as a soundtrack, as a feeling. This might mean that, ultimately, West Ryder Lunatic Asylum... does fall short; but on its own terms, it lands close enough to the mark to not be considered total bedlam.