Hitting the nail on the head: Duke Special’s Look Out Machines!

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At Christmas, Emma bought herself and I tickets to see Duke Special play at Nottingham’s Glee Club on the 12th March. It was a seated acoustic night with Peter Wilson (ie Duke Special) sat at the piano playing songs and talking with the audience. It showcased what a wonderfully talented, as well as genuinely lovely, man he is and was an evening you couldn’t help but enjoy. It was the 6th or 7th time I had seen him live, and one of the reasons I could quite easily see him another 6 or 7 times is because of how different every gig is. I’ve seen him with an orchestra of 7, or one of 3, I’ve seen him by himself and I’ve seen him headline festivals. I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting him twice in one night. He’s truly mesmerising live, and his piano skills are better than most in pop music these days.

Me on the left with Duke Special in the centre (and my friend Zoe on the right)

Me on the left with Duke Special in the centre (and my friend Zoe on the right)

The reason for his gig at the Glee club was the release of a new album, Look Out Machines!. As expected, the evening contained many new songs as well as old ones and covers. Duke is an artist who covers a lot of songs, whilst always putting his own spin on them. My favourite is his version of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart, although he didn’t play it! There were 8 new songs played, 5 covers and 4 old ones from what I (and setlist.fm) remember, although there might have been more. I was going to review it, like I’ve been doing with all of our other gigs but I wanted to wait to hear the new songs properly and be able to talk about them with confidence before doing it. Following the release of the album on the 6th April, I just never got around to it.

So here goes: Duke was enthralling that night. From the moment he walked on and started playing a new song, Elephant Graveyard, you could tell the audience were going to love the night. He explained the motives behind each of his new songs in detail, wanting us to get a feel for why he wrote the song and not just hear the music. At one stage he asked the audience to request songs from his back catalogue, which led to welcome renditions of Portrait, Brixton Leaves and Wanda. All of his old songs were taken from his first album (except Wanda, from Hector Mann) and all his new ones were played on the piano with no accompanying instruments, except Elephant and Son of the Left Hand, leading me to believe that his new album would be similar to his first, undoubtedly his best. It was impossible not to walk away satisfied that night. We had seen a truly talented musician, playing music he believed in and covered songs he loved. There was no pretence, no falseness – he was glad to be able to play to an audience where most knew and loved him without assuming it was always going to happen. Unknown artists are always the best to see live because it’s when music is at it’s purest. Music wouldn’t evolve without artists like Duke Special.

Duke is incredible live, go see him!

Duke is incredible live, go see him!

I was wrong in my initial assumption regarding the album. Rather than an album based mainly around Duke and the piano, which was what I had expected following the gig, a lot of the songs have his band playing with him. That aspect is similar to his second and third studio albums, however works much better than either of them did. He hasn’t written a bad album, it’s just this one is much better than anything since Songs From The Deep Forest, his debut attempt. Why is it more advanced? For me, it’s as simple as saying the songs are better and he’s clearly experimented in adding some different styles into his songs. For example, the rise in mood of Wingman following the second chorus was never something I expected to hear on a Duke Special record. One thing that remains constant throughout is his voice, at it’s best haunting and always beautiful, the strong Northern Irish tones add so much. Even in his voice, his staple, he finds room to experiment with his vocal range – something that, having seen the songs live, definitely works.

I’ve seen Duke Special headline Greenbelt festival; a collection of Christian artists and it’s no secret that Duke is a religious man. This isn’t really a surprise, given his Belfast upbringing however as he mentioned at the Glee Club, there is a level of indifference growing highlight in In a Dive’s “Jesus and his blood don’t mean so much anymore … don’t get me wrong it isn’t that I don’t believe”. In a Dive is written about how he’s being turned away by Belfast’s reputation as the Bible Belt of Europe but also how he finds beautiful and profound qualities in the most unlikely of places. Step To The Magical, the song before, draws on that latter theme and is written about a woman walking through busy streets, helping strangers and leaving the world a better place. Duke joined forces with former Snow Patrol guitarist, Iain Archer to write Elephant Graveyard, about the myth that elephants know where to go when they are going to die, how they all flock to a holy or mystical place to die. As usual, religion plays a huge part. Rounding off this section would be Son of the Left Hand, written about how being left-handed was seen as being a curse for many years.

That isn’t to say the whole album is based around religious themes, and they aren’t so obvious as to suffocate you. There is no preaching to Jesus here, as usual Duke deals with his religion in a non-pushy and approachable way. In many ways, he’s what all religious people should be – inspired by it but not forcing it down others throats. There are songs about how certain people can always get through to you, even if you don’t want to hear it, songs about never being alone and Statues is a love song, simple as. He meant every song to be positive and full-of-hope, well for me he succeeded. You can feel the hope, the optimism and the belief of future success in every song, which means the album becomes very listenable and easy to get lost in.

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I’m finding it very difficult to criticise it. There isn’t a weak song; there isn’t a duff note. Son of the Left Hand was my favourite song immediately upon hearing it, and that hasn’t changed. Step to the Magical has been stuck in my head many times in the two months I’ve owned the album while Wingman might just be the best song he’s written in years. Nail on the Head, In a Dive and Statues all show Duke doing what he does best. The first half of the album is the best of all his previous efforts. The only reason I still rate Songs From higher is because the second half doesn’t contain Salvation Tambourine and Last Night I Nearly Died. Look Out Machines, Stepping Stones and Domino are good songs in their own right, not quite matching the heights of those previous but still demanding listens.

The more I listen to Look Out Machines!, the more I fall in love with it. To describe it as a grower would be unfair though, as it immediately grabbed my attention. It’s an album that has come at the right time. The messages of hope resound within me, the easy music makes it difficult to listen to something else and Duke’s voice keeps you captivated. It contains enough of his quirks (unfortunately no gramophone that I noticed), highlighted on Tweed Coats as the background sounds are simply him walking around Eastbourne. It contains incredibly catchy elements (pre-chorus for Nail “I rattled the walls as I ran through the halls, screamed every word that I knew”) and moments where you can feel how much emotion he’s put into this album. But none of that is what makes it so special. It could be a dreadful album and still be special for it was completely fan funded. Gigging is how Duke makes his living and it’d be easy to look at the established artists and say musicians have it easy but for people like him, albums can only be produced through the generosity of fans, essentially strangers. Obviously they chose that career path, however like I’ve said music won’t evolve without artists like Duke Special and it’s up to us make sure they don’t die out. Buy Look Out Machines!, I assure you that you won’t regret it.

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Rating:

  1. Wingman – 9/10
  2. Elephant Graveyard – 7/10
  3. Step to the Magical – 8/10
  4. In a Dive – 8/10
  5. Statues – 7/10
  6. Son of the Left Hand – 10/10
  7. Look Out Machines – 6/10
  8. Nail on the Head – 8/10
  9. Tweed Coats – 6/10
  10. Stepping Stones – 6/10
  11. Domino – 6/10

Album rating: 7.5/10 (Excellent)

Note: I took most of the information about the writing of the album from here, it’s a review worth reading as it’s from the Horses’ mouse, the Duke himself. 

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Drones: The natural progression in Muse’s remarkable career

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Drones is Muse’s 7th album, which is an impressive return for a trio of men from Teignmouth, Devon. Over 20 years and 6 albums they’ve conquered rock music, headlining stadiums on a remarkably regular basis. It’s credit to their success that an album containing the destruction of the world, the crumbling of civilisation, a JFK speech and a capella singing isn’t considered too over the top. Drones takes everything which Muse do best, draws on influences from their favourite bands (Queen, RATM etc) as well as from their own previous efforts and combines it all to produce a monster of a rock album.

How do I begin to explain the madness that is Drones? Well, it’s a fully blown concept album, which brings tons of challenges. Concept albums, albums based around one single story or/and character, have been dying since the hay-day of Prog Rock. Nowadays, very few bands attempt it and if they do they fail to develop the concept, base it more around similar ideas rather than a traditional story. Muse are brave to attempt it, although it feels like the natural next step in their career given that they’ve played around with prog-rock before (Knights of Cydonia) and albums based around the same idea (all except Showbiz and arguably Origin of Symmetry).

The idea for Drones is fairly simple if not traditional, a man loses love, gets turned into a killer by the army before rebelling and revolting. The story throughout the album is pretty clear (to me anyway, I’ve seen people who say it isn’t), until we reach The Globalist. Apparently, this is where the second story comes in – involving our protagonist and another character, the shady controller of the drones, who ends up destroying the world. Of course, this is Muse – it’s completely overblown and apocalyptic. It just wouldn’t be right otherwise!

Drones draws on a number of different influences without sounding recycled. What’s more, these come from various parts of musical history and different genres. The final two tracks cover both Elgar and Palestrina while Reapers borrows from Rage Against The Machine, Defector from Queen and a few of them sound a little like U2 sounded like back when they were good. Every band take influences from other bands to mould their own sound, Muse respect the history of music and use it to their advantage. Very few bands are willing to add lyrics to early 20th century classical music or change the lyrics to Renaissance pieces, it’s not stupid either – it gives classical music a footing in the modern scene.

I’ve come up with a timeline to explain how I see the Muse albums fitting into a vague story: Showbiz was the start of their journey, both literally and in my timeline, with usual modern day frustrations and a much bigger focus on love rather than globalisation. Origin of Symmetry doesn’t really fit, however its themes are more expansive than Showbiz and start to look towards some form of apocalypse. The 2nd Law saw the world collapse under weight of corruption and pollution, and Muse seemingly ended it with a few people rebelling against the powers that be (see the videos for Isolated System and Unsustainable used in their stadium gigs), which leads us nicely onto The Resistance. Drones fits in next, with the government fighting back and turning people against each other. Drones ends with the world being destroyed, which is exactly where Absolution starts and Black Holes (especially Starlight) deals with the remainder of humanity leaving Earth behind and searching out new lives in the stars. Drones fits in perfectly with the overall Muse plot arch.

All the songs got their own artwork

All the songs got their own artwork

No album is perfect and Drones is no exception. The main gripe I have with Drones lies in the lyrics. Matt Bellamy has never been fantastic at writing lyrics, being at a particular low point with Muse’s 7th album. I get that it’s hard to fit lyrics around a theme however they should be better than what they are. They get close to ruining certain parts of the album (your belly is all yellow, your ass belongs to me etc) and indeed make sure that Drones won’t be remembered as Muse’s best piece of work. Oh, and that bloody Drill Sergeant, that’s just embarrassing.

Then again, the quality of music is much better than anything since BHAR. They’ve reintegrated guitar riffs and the album flows more consistently from one song to the next. It’s an album which is made to listen song after song, but that doesn’t mean that listening to one song at a time isn’t enjoyable. It’s a concept album but each song stands on it’s own and begs for listening time. The concept is dealt with well (besides the lyrics) and at the end of the day, I can forgive them for the lyrics because at least they aren’t singing about sex or drugs like everyone else seems to be at the moment. Matt’s vocals are also better on this record than any of the previous 6; he’s hauntingly chilling at times.

Maybe the best way to do this review would be to consider each song individually and provide a ranking out of 10:

Dead Inside:
Story: Protagonist falls out of love and loses hope

There’s no better word to describe Dead Inside than “grower”. The first time I heard it I knew it was good, yet I was a tad underwhelmed given what Muse had promised us. The next day I couldn’t stop listening to it. The first half is ok, but the second half might well be the best 2 minutes in Muse’s catalogue. The first example of Matt’s mesmerising voice, it won’t be the last. A good choice for a first single and sets the story up nicely.

Ranking: 8/10

[Drill Sergeant] and Psycho:
Story: Protagonist becomes controlled by the “Army”, becomes the drone

On the 10th November 1999, Muse, to the best of our knowledge, introduced the world to Psycho. Following Agitated, they played a riff, which would take 16 years to be turned into a song. The riff has been played at many gigs in the time between then and now, and for Muse fans the use of it on the album was a real homage back to their early days. I love the riff, I don’t love Psycho. Lyrically, and musically, for me this is the album’s low point. If it were a minute shorter without the drill sergeant and with a better chorus then it would be an incredible song. Shame really, but it fits in with the story and the use of the riff is brilliant plus apparently it’s incredible live.

Rating: 5/10 (would be 6 without DS)

Mercy:
Story: Fighting against the control being placed on them

I really quite enjoy listening to Mercy. It has a chorus you can belt out and is a nice hark back to Black Holes and Revelations / Absolution. The verse is similar to Starlight, the chorus to Stockholm Syndrome and the melody is more positive than the first two songs. A good choice for second single, it’s probably the closest to a mainstream pop-rock song and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Rating: 7/10

Reapers:
Story: He’s now killing people in a war-like scenario

The best song Muse have written since Map of the Problematique. Complete with some insane guitar work is a wonderful chorus and lyrics that fit with the song. The solo is unusually improvised for Muse and the ending riff is based on Freedom by RATM, a perfect fit for the song. It just immediately sounds like a Muse song and has been stuck in my head ever since I heard it. Sums Muse up for despite how heavy it is, Matt’s voice can still sound beautiful.

Rating: 10/10

The Handler:
Story: Starting to rebel against the forces that control him

The first of three songs that took me completely by surprise when I first heard them for I never anticipated Muse to be this dark. As the title suggests, it revolves around the protagonist’s handler and the hero realising that he no longer wants to be controlled. Let me go, let me be. I’m escaping from your grip; you will never own me again. The album has started to turn.

Rating: 9/10

[JFK] and Defector:
Story: Isn’t this obvious? He’s defecting 

The JFK introduction works really well here, and is a clip of a speech he made in April 1961. It’s about conspiracy and intimidation and so the message is exactly what Muse are trying to convey in Drones. Musically, Defector is a good song although slightly let down by the verses. The Queen like chorus (free, yeah I’m free from society) is catchy however the lyrics in the verses leave a lot to be desired which I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced by. Ending the song with JFK saying “with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent” gets a big thumbs up from me.

Rating: 8/10

Revolt:
Story: It appears there is now a revolution against the handlers

The second song that surprised me, for this is strangely poppy for Muse. It’s already getting a bad rep from Muse fans however I don’t buy any of it. A positive message is being reinforced by some of the better lyrics (you can make this world what you want) and the melody is insanely catchy. Not genius, but a good attempt at doing something a little different.

Rating: 6/10

Aftermath:
Story: He’s re-finding love; finally clean of all he’s done

I think Muse are at their best when performing ballads, as it provides an opportunity for them to show true emotion. Of course, fans who just want head banging music won’t understand the finer intricacies in songs such as Explorers and Ruled By Secrecy however they are beautiful and Aftermath slots alongside them quite nicely. I was pleasantly surprised to hear this on Drones, as I expected them to leave the rock ballads alone this album. We’ve gone against the tide, all we have is each other now, I’m coming home now, I need your comfort. It seems as though this will have the happy ending we all want.

Rating: 9/10

The Globalist:
Story: The second part, as the dictator destroys the world

It was never going to be that simple! Muse have their roots firmly set in prog-rock and this 10 minute piece showcases how prog rock can survive in the modern era. Split into three parts, it starts with guitar and whistling similar to a western film before “going nuclear” with a heavy instrumental middle section. It ends with Matt covering Elgar on the piano. They’ve described it as Citizen Erased part II, it’s more similar to Exogenesis but stands on it’s own two feet and doesn’t deserve comparisons to other songs. Yet again, the lyrics leave a lot to be desired at times.

Rating: 8/10

Drones:
Story: Everyone appears to be dead, so this is merely an ode to the dead

Ah, the a capella Renaissance piece, a re-working of Palestrina’s scores. It’s a very bold ending to an album, one that a lot of people won’t understand however it’s the one time where you have to consider the overall picture. This album was meant to be a concept and that needs an ending, it’s very likely that with nuclear destruction any remaining humans or fragments of humanity would look to religion as a way to understand suffering. As a result, the singing works. Not usually my type of music however I adore what they’ve done with it and respect the audacity to branch away from the norm.

Rating: 6/10

Overall Rating: 7.5/10 (Excellent)

Drones is a very good attempt at a concept album and, if they get their way, will probably be turned into a musical one day. That would be nothing less than it deserves. Harking back to Muse’s rock roots, it’s an album that doesn’t abandon the experimentation on the last couple of outings, just merely shrinks it and increases the core instruments. As with all their good stuff, at times you can’t help but be amazed at how only three people are making such a sound. All are unbelievably talented at all they do and for me, this is the first album since Origin to really highlight that. I was dead excited for this album and it hasn’t let me down.

The deluxe version was very well presented with the CD, DVD of live songs, Vinyl and two art prints

The deluxe version was very well presented with the CD, DVD of live songs, Vinyl and two art prints

If you haven’t heard a Muse album before (then where have you been since 2005?!) I wouldn’t recommend starting with Drones. You’d probably be confused as to why it was so overblown and seemingly illogical. Muse have always been like that, Muse will always be like that but on Drones the absurdness is turned up to max. Quite frankly, I like the fact they make such huge music. If they did things softly or subtlety it wouldn’t be anywhere near as enjoyable to listen to. Even their ballads such as Explorers and Aftermath mention leaving the world behind or crumbling states. It’s understandable why they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but for me there is no band or artist in music I feel anywhere near as much connection with or love for. Drones doesn’t hinder that, it increases it.