The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

The Lead Review

Eldritch Infinity War: Energy Is Forever By UKAEA
Bernie Brooks , November 12th, 2020 09:01

A collaborative feast, UKAEA's Energy Is Forever is a thriller full of wild aesthetic undulations, says Bernie Brooks

Dig if you will a quote Tweet: one compound word from our fearless co-captain @jahduran accompanying a tQ newsblast announcing Dan Jones's new UKAEA LP on Hominid Sounds, Energy Is Forever: "Superheroes." At the time, it was immediately apparent to me how apt the word was and still is. It's probably apparent to anyone who's been following the nebulous community of oddball artists tQ has christened the ‘New Weird Britain’ with any degree of interest. To be sure, Jones's project is one of the tentpoles of New Weird Britain as a conceptual project. Without UKAEA and a handful of other key acts you can wrangle together around the idea, it runs the risk of collapsing. Or at least, by my estimation, it'd be harder to make the case for it as a significant cultural movement at the margins. Jones's latest bolsters the notion of these artists as a semi-unified front. Drawing together luminaries from throughout the UK, the album coalesces around an array of collaborators, many of whom readers of this publication are sure to recognise.

So, re: superheroes, let's try a little thought experiment. Imagine an Avengers-esque blockbuster that isn't wack. Remove the weird, out-of-date Western exceptionalism. Slice away all the fat, remove all the bloat. Rip out the sorry green screen CGI, replace it with some killer practical effects. Toss in a bunch of gore – why not? Conjure up some setpieces that are both arresting and in service of the plot. Keep all the cameos and guests but make them more than fan service. Now make it British, but not stodgy – a proper global, melting-pot Britain. Lastly, morph this fanciful blockbuster into a record instead of a movie, and make that record thump hard. That's Energy Is Forever in a nutshell.

Alright, who's on this thing? Aja Ireland, 3/4ths of Sly & The Family Drone's current iteration, the whole of Torn Relics, violist Agathe Max, violinist John Hannon, Lydia Morgan of PRODOM and Terminal Dogma, vocalists Charly Blackburn and Conny Prantera, Amdeep Sanghera on djembe, Deyar Yasin on vocals, and Marion Andrau of The Wharves and Reciprocate (among others) on all sorts of things. Oh yeah, don't forget Jones's dad, David. He's contributed, too. While every member of this cast of thousands makes their presence felt, it's Sanghera, Yasin, and Andrau who feel like core members of the group by album's end, equal drivers of the overall tenor and direction of the record, which at times seems to have as much in common with the experimental music scenes of North Africa, the Levant, and the broader Middle East – artists like MSYLMA and ZULI and Praed Orchestra!, for instance – as it does with anything one might stereotypically think is going on in the UK or Western Europe. This is neither entirely expected nor is it altogether surprising, but in keeping with the Britain I mentioned above – global and deeply influenced by immigration – something that Jones seems keen to reflect though this work. That is, if the content of it is any indication.

When speaking with John Doran on the Radio 4 programme New Weird Britain in 2019, Jones remarked, "For the first few years, it was just banging techno, but then I guess I started to get into cyclical rhythms, like Indonesian music – music that makes you feel liberated." Even if my guesses into Jones's motivations wind up debunked, it's easy to assume that quest for sonic liberation would involve incorporating more and more sounds – whether they be local or diasporic or far-flung. Energy Is Forever bares those assumptions out.

Energy Is Forever is an album of aesthetic undulations, heavily influenced by the way Jones chooses to foreground his collaborators. Still, he never loses the plot, unifying the record, at least in part, through a canny shuffling of his co-conspirators. In fact, the only tracks that don't feature one or more of Sanghera, Yasin, or Andrau are 'Vampire Moth' and 'Huntress', and they, of course, feature Jones, a unifying factor in and of himself. It is his record, after all, which funnily enough, is often easy to forget, as he somehow slips into the background despite his sonic signature and bracing beats being all over the place. Welcome to UKAEA, your one-stop source for ego death, 2020.

In a rather roundabout way, this brings me back to setpieces, cameo appearances. Earlier, I mentioned the Avengers pictures, but really, Energy Is Forever is more like a version of Captain America: Civil War that doesn't stink. That one's ostensibly a movie about Cap, but it's so chock full of guests that it becomes a de facto Avengers vehicle. Which is almost the story here, but Jones doesn't push it quite so far, Energy Is Forever never becomes something other than a UKAEA record. Sure, it's built out of the musical equivalent of gonzo action sequences loaded with wild fight choreography, with tracks that could translate into massive spectacles on the big screen, but that's a virtue not a problem. I mean, if Hulk shows up, you want to see him smash some stuff, right?

So, when Aja Ireland appears on 'Vampire Moth', the track is ferocious and monstrously heavy, knotted up with pummelling percussion and otherworldly shrieks and stuttering static. By contrast, there's 'Salt To Sea', a plaintive number that leans heavily on Yasin's incredibly affecting, emotionally complex vocals, Sanghera's djembe, and Hannon's violin. It builds up steam as Jones and his collaborators play around and with each other, eventually climaxing in a cyclone of clattering rhythms. Featuring most of Sly, Andrau, Morgan, and Blackburn, 'Benzene Hex' rages and skronks – a bunch of bass clarinets in a railway collision. The album closes with 'Radio Zero', an aural assault, all noise and subs and David Jones's recordings of bees, anchored by Andrau's myriad contributions to the track (electronics, percussion, tape manipulation) but most of all by her spoken word vocals.

In that same episode of New Weird Britain, Doran emphasises the power of UKAEA's live set, the impossibility of its transference to other media: "You really have to go down to a gig to experience it. It isn't going to work on a recording – it's just not relevant to them. It happens in that one moment, and it'll never happen again, so I'm afraid what you're hearing now just doesn't come close." Now, being thousands of miles away, I'm probably never going to experience UKAEA in this holistic way. I'll get slivers, fragments of the experience, but if the slivers and fragments are this overwhelmingly powerful, this thrilling, I'm honestly OK with that. You can't miss what you've never had, right?

Recently, I've found myself once again diving deep into Adrian Sherwood's early 80s productions -–particularly Dub Syndicate and African Head Charge – reading old reviews, scrounging up clippings. It occurs to me now that Sherwood and Jones are quite alike. Maybe not so much aesthetically, but in the way their collaborations ultimately capture portraits of Britain's multicultural creative fringe, those beautiful souls working in the gradients between things, outside of the mainstream. So, to steal a line from an old Sean O'Hagan review of One Way System: "If you are at all interested in [music] as experiment, as stimulant, as innovation once more, search this one out: it's the business."