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The Lead Review

Patrick Clarke On Hey Colossus' The Guillotine
Patrick Clarke , June 8th, 2017 11:39

In The Guillotine Hey Colossus have hit a new peak just when it felt like there was no higher for them to climb. Patrick Clarke explores a ferocious call to arms and a militant articulation of turbulent times.

One would be forgiven for thinking that 2015 was the year in which Hey Colossus reached an unmatchable zenith. Releasing two of the year's most brilliant albums, In Black And Gold and Radio Static High via what seemed like the major outlet for all that was brilliant in modern psych – Rocket Recordings – it felt like a twin-peaked culmination of an unconventional, though thoroughly deserved, rise to prominence.

Born as a crazed, cataclysmic hodge podge of furious free noise with inflections of kraut, psych and Japanese rock in the early-2000s, over a decade later the band became something of a British staple, lauded not only by the fringes but by the likes of Uncut and Mojo. Their sound, while having undeniably progressed, 'refined', even, still packed a brutal slug of a punch, and it seemed as though they'd perfected, like never before, the perfect balance between the brutal mania of old and a deserved sense of 'status' in the music world.

In the time between those two LPs and their latest, The Guillotine, much has changed, not only in the music of Hey Colossus, but, as it goes without saying, in the world at large. In the wake of the planet's hopeless heave to the political right, on their 11th studio album the band have done what seemed barely possible in 2015; Hey Colossus' knives have been honed even sharper. In short, the band have reached another level, where it felt there was nowhere left to climb.

There is much in common, here, with one of the year's other most crushingly spectacular records, Gnod's Just Say No To The Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine. Both have been partial to stylistic metamorphosis, but at present their respective current forms overlap in a way that feels significant in the current climate. There is an argument that the best political bands have been those that married a militant message with militant sonics – Public Enemy, for example – and it's just this that makes Hey Colossus and Gnod's new albums so effective, the heaving, primal thuds and cataclysmic bursts of rushing, swirling musical hellfire.

'Englishman' is the centrepiece of The Guillotine, on which frontman Paul Sykes howls:

Whoops the empire slipped between the cracks
The stuff of legend and it's never coming back
Pack him with salt and seal the lid
Roll off the barrels from a sinking ship
Up the middle of the skittish isles
Collecting stories for a new witch trial
He was wild, young, loved and free
Whatever happened to his old country?

It's noticeable that these lyrics are as audible as Hey Colossus' have ever been, pushed front and centre atop a lurching, uncompromising pump of an instrumental. As a frontman Sykes has often counterbalanced his intensity with a keen, self-affacing eye for the exaggerated and grandiose, but here he feels imbued with a new sense of focus, his looming presence concentrated and refined. 'Englishman', as a result, is in this writer's opinion the finest 'political' song released this year. As for political rock songs, there's few, if any, to match it this decade.

"It's hard to not be affected by what's going on in the world," said the band's Joe Thompson on the song's release, over a month ago. "Consequently the music gets more tightly wound around the vocals. If the lyrics were going to be more pointed I wanted the music to be more so also, so I spent time with some classics – Fugazi's Repeater, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, This Heat's records, and Crass' Penis Envy…" It is evident that this was no mere PR spiel. This added sense of focus makes for a breathless listen elsewhere on the record, an adjective to be taken quite literally.

What really makes this album so breathlessly brilliant are the moments of quiet, when the carnage subsides to an eerie unease. You know what's coming when the opener 'Honest To God' slinks into a slow roll, Sykes vocals as much a whisper as a scream. You know that sooner or later the explosion is imminent - it's what Hey Colossus do best - but somehow, when it hits, it's breathtaking all the same.

It's a marvellous opener, but its only on 'Back In The Room', which follows, that the scope of the band's intent is laid bare. This track is not just another piece of surging excellence from the group, it is something more. There is an indescribable extra edge to this song, to the churning, spinning loops and rotations, to the ceaseless pounding of drums, a song so manic, yet so direct. Unsettling spoken word, texturally so lavish yet so eerie, so relentless, so frightening. Every now and then you think it's reached a crescendo so cataclysmic there's nowhere else to climb, but no. Vocals soar even higher, the pounding gets louder and more visceral, a mad blast of saxophone joins the fray.

I could go on about how fantastic this album sounds, about the glorious, soaring terror of 'Experts Toll', or the rich, mournful beauty of 'Potions', but what feels more important is what it means. The Guillotine, as Gnod have done on Just Say No..., sees Hey Colossus harnessing their chaos, honing it into the very essence of these terrifying times.

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