The Blinders release their second album. Review by Alan Neilson.
What are the chances of releasing an album called ‘Fantasies of a Stay At Home Psychopath’ at the exact moment in time when the world is forced to stay at home?
The Blinders’ second album was due to be released in May, right at the height of lockdown in the UK, but was delayed due to difficulties in guaranteeing pressing and shipping in time for the original release date, as well as not being able to play live and promote the album with live shows.
All of the tour supporting the album was cancelled and rescheduled for September**, which even now seems a little optimistic at best, and unlikely at worst, when pockets of the country enter further localised lockdowns. As pubs begin opening, live venues are some way off being ready post-pandemic… if there ever is such a thing. ** (scroll down for new dates in 2021)
As the album was recorded at the end of 2019, its title is a scary coincidence rather than prophetic, but the subject matter as before on ‘Columbia’ still draws from social commentary and current affairs, as well as the ever more likely approaching dystopia.
The album starts off in true Blinders’ style with ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, as if the echoes of the thumping tom toms of ‘Brutus’ bled down the corridors and followed them through streets and halls into the new studio.
Their producer this time is Rob Ellis and he has not tried to change much about the band’s sound; it is still like a battering ram, but he has added to their sonic palette with backing vocals, interesting reverbs and sound effects, and the welcome addition of multiple guitars. This is not an album that can be reproduced live without recruiting players. Right from this first track there is a theme that runs through the album: one of taking from literature and repackaging in rock. The lyrics and song titles seem familiar because they are already out there, with the opening track you have Shakespeare or Ray Bradbury, depending on your taste in books.
‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ follows, well known from the 2019 tour, it sounds just as powerful as it did on stage. Again the title has religious connotations with connections to both Jesus and the great flood.
‘Lunatic With A Loaded Gun’ is a marvel as it shifts and moves in surprising directions with the chorus practically bursting from a semi-spoken introductory verse, with a wonderfully simple semitone interval F to E. For me, this track is where The Blinders show they have improved their song-writing craft.
When ‘Circle Song’ was released as an early single in February, it appeared to be the grand shift in the band’s sound, as they incorporate more than their usual three instruments by adding a piano and stunning backing vocals, however, like ‘Orbit’ it is a brief interruption to normal services. The song’s fine melody seems to show their skills have improved by great leaps, until you realise that it is scarily close in parts to the melodic structure of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ with the chord progression of F#m to F to A to D – but where they then go to the well used major to minor trick, Floyd take it further in a different direction altogether. Once you hear that similarity it is difficult to shake off and even Thomas’ second lead guitar break feels like it is going to morph into a Gilmour riff, but never actually does (the first lead break is sublime though, conjuring up memories of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’).
The lyric somewhat clumsily tips its hat in the direction of the band’s heroes being a constant force of inspiration, like Bowie “Who’d know about the Norfolk Broads” (as if before ‘Life On Mars?’ no one had heard of the national park); as well as George Harrison “How I wish to find my own Sweet Lord”; Edward Bulwer-Lytton “The pen is the sword”; Icarus “Perhaps I flew too close to the light”. There is a tendency for rhyme to force the narrative of the song, which can be restrictive and may be how Bowie’s Norfolk Broads found its way into the song following the previous lines’ rhymes: Accord, sword, Broads, Lord, abroad… then later: words, birds, unheard. It is a shame because in other places on the record Thomas will come out with something beautifully simple like “I’m quiet because I don’t like to waste words” and again earlier on the album he states: “recently I have fallen into a bad habit of silence” which he rhymes with violence in the previous line, but it does not sound forced there.
‘I Want Gold’ has a Doors feel with a Morrison sounding vocal over a pounding rhythm, as Thomas screams about the conquistadors looting South America and how this has never stopped even though the countries involved are different.
‘Interlude’ is exactly that as it seems to split the album into two parts. It differs from the other songs, featuring no guitars only a laid back jazz lounge piano part that is almost Bacharach meets Pink Floyd, but here it is juxtaposed with a sinister spoken vocal which spits out bile and frustration.
The second half of the album begins with ‘Mule Track’, and it is heavy, I mean really heavy, with Sabbath-esque riffs tempered only by a stunning Hammond organ.
“Rage at the Dying of the Light” contains stunning guitar work that I wanted to hear on their debut album and this shows their arrangements are so much improved by having more than one guitar pounding away.
‘From Nothing to Abundance’ does sound a little like their own ‘L’etat C’est Moi’ – with equally outstanding lyrics, this time about the transitory nature of life; empires rise and empires will fall, inevitably. After ‘Lunatic’, this is the best track on the album.
The influence of Pink Floyd reappears on ‘Black Glass’ as ‘Have A Cigar’ is almost quoted: “I’m a TV star, gonna go far,” as well as one of its guitars producing a single note guitar solo sounding like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ opening. They are masters at creating atmosphere and the tempo changes here are inventive and a welcome change in their song arrangements. “In This Decade” finishes the album and channels Bob Dylan unashamedly with the folk chord progression and lines like “If you need me babe”. Along with the occasional nod to Poe’s ‘The Raven’, the band again seems to want either to wear their influences where everyone can see them, or want to appear well read and bookish. It is certainly more entertaining listening to this album than the usual lyrical offerings from the indie or alternative genres, which at worst is just all surface.
There is a lot to admire about The Blinders’ follow-up to their 2018 debut, but part of me thinks they spent so much time on tour and not enough time really finding a new voice, that it’s hardly surprising that at times, perhaps unconsciously, music they love has heavily influenced this new set of songs.
There is a feeling that The Blinders are still searching for their signature sound and because they wear their influences so proudly, sometimes those influences show themselves too readily and are so intertwined with the band’s original intention that they dilute it somehow. I did feel almost too often throughout listening to the record, that something they were doing sounded like something somebody else had already done.
I suppose there is no real issue with emulating your heroes, but I have to ask, what makes those heroes so good? I would argue that they were either pioneers, or they took from what went before them and added something to it. If the artists of today take from their heroes and add nothing, then where are the heroes of the future going to come from? I have to admit that I was hoping for more of an artistic leap on this second album, as it is not too dissimilar to their debut. Melodically they are still using standard blues harmonic progressions, occasionally dipping into a relative minor, or the old songwriter trick of playing the major chord followed immediately by its minor inversion… not particularly adventurous. Now I may be being harsh on the band, but if they are never questioned or forced to be more imaginative, then in another year they will have another album which follows this pattern. Artists should be pushed to be more daring; to work harder and produce a more perfect piece of art… this record is closer without doubt.
The thing is, I can still smell the stench of the Gallagher brothers in so many songs by this generation of bands; and remember Oasis repackaged their heroes, so now we have musicians copying musicians who copied musicians (on the shoulders of the shoulders of giants indeed). In fact, the Gallagher virus has infected alt-pop and indie music since mid-90s and it is still lurking in some of this album’s songs. I understand that kids coming of age in the wake of Oasis’ success believe they were the best thing since The Beatles became bigger than Jesus, but I honestly hated almost everything Oasis did, so don’t quite understand the fascination. The problem for me is that their popularity and all-consuming influence has made a whole generation of up and coming songwriters lazy, with formulaic songs and dull production. I can hear those overused chords and cliched lyrics a mile off.
Despite any negativity you read between the lines here, don’t misinterpret my message: this album is still an incredible piece of work. What The Blinders give you is an outpouring of emotion and feeling. Sometimes their sword is mightier than their pen but sometimes that is necessary. There are too many cerebral bands making clever noises when sometimes you actually need a sledgehammer to really nail it. There is still a rawness and an edge to their music and that makes it very listenable indeed.
‘Fantasies of a Stay At Home Psychopath’ is a fine album, like a Blinders juggernaut lumbering as well as powering down the highway, with a few stops when they go off at a tangent into a musical cul-de-sac. The fact is though that the dead end streets they have visited on this album are much more interesting than the path they have worn for themselves. I was under the impression, the album as a whole was a change of direction, but it isn’t really. But saying that, they are still moving forward and improving every time they write. So is it a step up from their debut? Well like 2020, it is a case of a few steps forward and a couple of steps back.
‘Fantasies of a Stay At Home Psychopath’ – digital / vinyl – released 17th July2020 https://theblindersofficial.com/ (Modern Sky)
** Stop Press: March 2021 Tour Announced