Matthew Eland on a reissued classic which slipped under many people’s radar – and a rare sideproject which betters the day job.
Frank Turner: A Song To Ruin
Xtra Mile Recordings
Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats. So began Million Dead‘s 2003 debut album, given a timely re-release thanks to Frank Turner‘s bothering of the charts and its scarcity online or anywhere – a bit too Alan Partridge for one of the best rock groups of the noughties.
There, I said it, even though you’ve probably not heard of them, and they only started selling out shows when they announced that relations had become too fractious for them to continue.
They were a mess of contradictions, widely thought of as a political band despite Turner imploring the listener to seek ‘the tongue inside my cheek’ on We Are the Party and a list of lyrical subjects that spanned FHM magazine, telesales jobs, Enid Blyton, 9/11, the Fall of Byzantium, and the possibility of the person on the other end of the train being your future spouse.
To scan the verbose theologising of the lyric sheet would suggest a collective of underground Bolsheviks, living in squats and battling social ills, when really they were just four incorrigible pissheads, two English straight edgers corrupted by a couple of wanton Aussies.
The burly drummer famously broke a fans arm in a friendly arm-wrestle, and on the same tour dragged a beer throwing punter onto stage to lick the carling off his ride cymbal, an incident captured and available for all to see on youtube.
Chaos and calamity seemed to tail them wherever they went, but they battled through it with wry smiles and a sense of adventure paralleled in the wild abandon of their music.
A Song to Ruin is probably the better of the two albums, recorded with their first guitarist.
If Neil Young had been on the DC scene he would have sounded like Cameron Dean; scratchy, terse and always ready to turn on the approaching beat, favouring a cheeky treble to compliment Julia Ruzicka‘s low end thump.
Having said that, opener Pornography for Cowards is all about the crunch, a two minute blast of noise with Turner in full on Converge mode and drummer Ben Dawson‘s fabled screaming making a cameo appearance (you could hear it, un-amplified, over the PA, the person next to you, and everyone else.)
It’s music to dance too – just listen to the drum beat on Breaking the Back, an incitement to movement if ever there was one. The title track is a bleak wall of ballast, anchoring the chaos either side; a slow, restrained lament of urban decay, a precursor to their TS Eliot inspired second album.
From then on it’s all business – Smiling at Strangers on Trains, a love song without sentiment and full of hope.
Then MacGyver, a treatise on the limits of technology disguised in the tale of how, one day, the titular TV star found a situation he couldn’t escape unscathed from, and the epic closer Rise and Fall, with its 14-minute wigout, another hint of the potential they could have exploited.
This special edition comes with a few bonus tracks, an indication, perhaps, of the second album they may have made if Dean hadn’t quit.
Gnostic Front cuts an incongruous figure, proof that Turner hadn’t quite gotten to grips with his vocal range, but Tonight Matthew is pure pop – the tale of a Stars in their Eyes contestant deciding to make up the words, with the frenzied intricacies pared down into engaging beats and a singular sense of purpose.
Best of all is Asthma, an early example of Turner solo work in its more self critical mode. It would eventually evolve into Carthago Est Delenda, a great song in its own right, but this is a satisfying counterpart.
If they’d kept going they’d be on their fourth album by now, and Turner’s current fame seems to suggest that they wouldn’t have been quite as obscure.
Reuben: We Should Have Gone to University
Xtra Mile Recordings
We Should Have Gone to University seems an uncharacteristically bitchy title for a b-sides collection, from such a jovial band.
I know it’s meant to be tongue in cheek, but it’s a bit like Thom Yorke saying that making In Rainbows nearly ‘killed him’, and that he doesn’t want to make any more records. Get a grip.
Although, in the interests of fairness, it was considerably more difficult for Reuben, now on indefinite hiatus (and Yorke was probably misquoted as well, so sorry if you compulsively google your name and are reading this). They all held day jobs in between touring (Waitrose, a chips shop and a garden centre, apparently) and were perpetually on the periphery of mainstream exposure.
But I put it to you that having a faithful army of fans, one large enough to make a rarities collection fiscally viable, is nothing to be sneezed at. University then a job in HR then death isn’t as much fun, I’m sure.
The first disc is the best, a chronological account of their early EPs. Wooden Boy is a robust monster of a rock song, and cheeky little number Stealing Is Easy seems to chart the point where their stuff becomes to age well, and indicate the tangents they’d go off on their full lengths.
There’s a bit too much chaff on disc two, although it includes a cracking version of Scared of the Police, the track that made people take notice. Then there’s the cover of Feel Good Inc, which is scarily faithful, to the point of including manic cackling in front of the track.
Later on Christmas Is Awesome (we’re rocking out the place/ look out for mistletoe or I will kiss your face) appears, their attempt on the festive number one slot, which could have been a hilarious little coup if they’d not forgotten to register it for the singles chart.
It ends on a strange note with The Last Time, a song they first played on the final tour, having been introduced as fourth album material. And yet it sounds like a home made demo – the drumming is clearly not the work of Guy Davis.
It’s a strange statement to make when they’ve not been totally clear about their reasons behind the split (although they did write a song about a theoretical one on the second album) and dressing it up as a ballad not that dissimilar to their track Nobody Loves You is an odd move.
Marmaduke Duke: Duke Pandemonium
This album is so good as to be infuriating, since it contains more wit and creativity in midpoint track Pandemonium than there was in the whole of Biffy Clyro‘s Puzzle.
For the uninitiated, this is a side project of that band, and their second album. While the first one was divided into three suites (heavy songs, acoustic songs then weird bass drone tracks) this is a tight, 32 minute disco/funk record. The strident staccato of Silhouettes is strangely effecting, while the aforementioned Pandemonium is a triumph of production, a mess of percussion searching for a tune, until a discordant acoustic guitar guides it to a majestic finale.
Erotic Robotic is a midi based hip hop tune that has no right to work as well as it does, and while Skin the Mofo nearly ruins the album with it’s archness, it can’t take the sheen of recent single Rubber Lover.
The band have said that if it sounded cool, they’d cut it, and if it made them laugh, then it was in. It’s led to a joyous collaboration, and one they should apply to their day jobs.
Twin Atlantic: Vivarium
The first thing you notice with these boys is Sam McTrusty‘s Glaswegian rasp.
Unfortunately, the music is nowhere near as distinctive, and there’s only one exciting riff, on Old Grey Face, that goes beyond the down-tuned power chords angle. Which would be salvageable, if the lyrics transcended the over-earnest, Americanized teen movie schtick they’ve fallen into.
There’s enough power and conviction to suggest there may be a good band underneath the tired furrows they’ve already ploughed, but not until they bust out some proper riffs and drop the getting-even-with-ex-girlfriends in song habit.