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Placebo: Battle For The Sun. The First Review Of Their New Album
Toby Cook , April 7th, 2009 08:04

Trumpets? Handclaps? Epic post rock? Placebo fan Toby Cook is mildly concerned after hearing their new album

‘Kitty Litter’
Let’s be honest, this is a pretty dreadful song title. However, any concerns that it is an indication of the quality of the song itself are dispensed with within about two seconds. The opening track of Placebo’s fifth studio album, Battle For The Sun, goes straight for the carotid artery, and is instantly reminiscent of the band’s more musically aggressive moments like ‘Brick Shithouse’ or ‘Bulletproof Cupid’. A very punk, route-and-octave guitar part opens the track before a gut punching kick-drum leads us into the main body of the tune. One thing that has arguably coloured Placebo’s career, since their eponymous debut, has been an unwillingness to operate as a straight forward rock band, but ‘Kitty Litter’ is for the most part a constant, up-tempo, head-banger. No plinky plonky piano or effects laden guitar parts here, just three guys with three instruments, going for it. That is until a rather ill-judged Bloc Party-esque hand clap interlude. Molko seems up beat – the lyrics express a desire for a particular individual’s attentions, as opposed to the usual laments of how that individual has tormented him.

‘Ashtray Heart’
The intro here is not dissimilar to that of the previous track, and is almost exactly the same tempo, except for the curious decision to include a stylophone part. On the plus side, this is another out and out rock number, again displaying the group’s punkish aesthetic – which may account for the shouted, fist pumping vocal backing, post chorus. It may appear curious that for a track that takes its name from a Captain Beefheart song, there appears to be no reference musically or lyrically to his musical ouevre. Though in the interests of pub quiz trivia, Ashtray Heart was allegedly the band’s original name, before switching to Placebo.

‘Battle For The Sun’
The title track from the LP, and initially a far more familiar sounding Placebo appears. Discordant guitar layers, and anguished vocals, set to rim-shot heavy drums leads to an opening verse which stylistically at least is a kin to the likes of QOTSA; a soundtrack for speeding, top down, along a parched desert highway, straight towards the rapidly setting sun. But then an almighty shift – Placebo go epic, calling to mind Biffy Clyro’s ‘Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies’. Kitchen sink and all is thrown straight in as the chorus erupts, almost out of nothing. Whirling strings and hammering piano notes are shoehorned in with at least two guitar parts. This over-builds to the point where any sort of climax is bound to be slightly disappointing. For those of you familiar with Spaced, Tim (Simon Pegg)’s explanation of masturbation could just as easily be applied to the conclusion of this song.

‘For What It’s Worth’
A very garage rock-esque opening here, with dirty, speaker cone rupturing, distorted bass backing familiar expressions of self-loathing from Molko. By the time we start to get into the track however, again the band change tack again as the tune becomes almost d-beat in its rhythmic make up. What happens at roughly two minutes in, has to go down as one of the most bizarre, and unexplainable thing I have ever heard however: the track stops, and we’re treated to about 5 seconds of (what I’m pretty sure is) the Tetris theme music, before starting again. There is still a part of me that hopes this will not appear on the album when it’s finally released, and that it was simply a ruse to completely dumbfound a room full of hacks. Like the momentarily appearing penis in Fight Club.

‘Devil In The Details’
Although not filler or bad by any means, the songs so far have all felt quite similar and this is no different. One of the beauties of Placebo’s earlier work, especially around Without You I’m Nothing and Black Market Music, was that interspersed between the uptempo, pop-grunge songs, were minimal, down beat affairs like ‘Blue American’ or ‘Burger Queen’. Alarmingly anything resembling this side of the band’s personality seems to be missing so far. Again with ‘Devil In The Details’ we get the starts-odd-then-goes-epic approach. Admittedly, the sustained almost choral synth intro has a very haunting quality and adds a depth to the track.

‘Bright Lights’
The Killers. That’s all I can think for almost the duration of ‘Bright Lights’. Whilst the track is far from being a ‘Mr. Brightside’, with its incessant Casio keyboard noise appearing at every conceivable opportunity, it would only look slightly out of place on Hot Fuzz. Even lyrically this is feels like a lazy effort, with Molko repeating ad-nausum the insipid phrase: “A heart that hurts is a heart that works”. Dreadful.

‘Speak In Tongues’
Subtle, progressive, considered piano notes and driving bass form the backing for a series of delicate, plucked guitar harmonics that make for a welcome change of pace. But, alas it does not last, and before long the tempo is upped and everything becomes grandiose and epic. A lone, hastily strummed guitar marks a break for the chorus, but again it is short lived as everything is thrown in for the crescendo. Curiously, in another moment of journalist-confusing weirdness, the track contains brief moments of what sounds like a mobile phone ringing. So much so that during the playback, all heads pop-up, meerkat like, looking for the culprit.

‘The Never-Ending Why’
At this point I’m starting to ask myself a similar question to Brian. An ode to frustration, ‘The Never-Ending Why’ forces yet more instruments into an already overcrowded mix. As the track progresses, understated vocal harmonies underpin an otherwise melancholic feel and add a much needed cohesion to things. Even though there seems to be little need for it, yet more brass instruments appear as the tune once again broods and swells. This veers into the territory of the post rock epic with moments of, admittedly well engineered, high pitched Mono-esque guitar work.

Now we seem to be getting somewhere. A very electro, synth bass opening – bringing to mind Meds, ‘Infra-red’ or ‘Blind’. On first listen this could almost be a low-end loop from a drum & bass number. Thankfully the darker, depressive tendencies of the group at last seem to have fought their way through but it doesn’t last for long. Just as the song seems to be unfurling into a genuinely engrossing three or four minute journey into lyrical androgyny - that same driving, kick-drum lead tempo from the opening numbers is back. But this is a good tune and will no doubt be released as a single at a later date.

‘Happy You’re Gone’
The minimal, melancholic opening is a familiar staple of the Without You I’m Nothing days, but soon enough that same driving tempo comes on like the rush of liquid sugar, injected into your eyeballs. No questionable instrumentation this time, but possibly they had a few more hours left with the string section before the money ran out, because as competently arranged as it is, you can’t help but feel that the track (and by extension, the whole album) would have benefited from a less liberal usage of it. Molko seems to be in genuine agony as throat lacerating cries of “every word from you is a lie” sibilate and carve through the ever more consuming noise.

‘Breathe Underwater’
A dirty, garage rock tinged bass line sets things off before swathes of heavily distorted, high key guitar chords introduce what is actually a pretty ballsy rock song. As the track progresses the drums move into some clichéd, but well executed tom work. On an album so far full of often overly contrived, epic jaunts – this is three plus minutes of welcome relief.

‘Come Undone’
Thick, warm, barely distorted guitar chords, and lightly plucked harmonics again invite comparisons in style to Mono. As it meanders its way along we are at last treated to that other staple of the Placebo roster: Molko’s inane ability to make rather naff, schoolboy rhymes sound plausible – on this occasion opting to rhyme ‘toss’ with ‘cross’ and ‘loss..t’. Before long though the track has again built in to an epic, post rock taunting affair, before closing with what sounds like the Tardis appearing. Weird? Yes. Very.

‘Kings Of Medicine’
And thus we reach the final composition of Placebo’s Battle For The Sun odyssey (and this isn't a term I'm using lightly) and an acoustic guitar raises its head timorously. Accompanied at first solely by Molko’s gravelled voice, soon enough he is joined by every instrument that has ever been invented. It seems that the sound of Placebo circa 2009 is one of a thick, almost impenetrable, wall of sound. Muted trumpets, hand claps, stabbed piano keys and that damned Casio all contend for attention. This may well be an audio puzzle to solve with more listens but on first encounter it presented an occasional barrier to enjoyment.