I mused for a while over whether to leave the elephant in the corner of the room here, or whether to get it out of the way first. So obviously it is going to be the latter. The Strand are, or have been at least, lumped in as a “Steampunk” band in the past. I’ve no idea whether it was a phase, or whether it is just their visual style and that’s that.
Because, well, this is a question that never quite seems to be asked when it comes to Steampunk bands. What was Steampunk meant to sound like? As from what I can tell, not a single band I’ve seen lumped in with the term actually sounds anything like the others. Aside from these guys, there is Abney Park, and The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing. If anyone can tell me a tangible musical link – as opposed from the fact that they all were similarly-styled outfits – I’ll buy them a pint.
For those of you reading this who have no idea who The Strand are, hello, and welcome. I’ve been following the band and their output for a while now, and I can’t imagine that I’ll be the only one who heard the storming Imperative Reaction remix of I Hate My Fucking Job – complete with a genius Red Dwarf sample at the heart – and made a swift decision to hunt out more material. Which seeing as the band are from Phoenix, AZ, and to put it mildly their distribution is not great (I prefer CDs if I can help it), a few digital purchases later and I was sorted.
Perhaps a remix is never a great place to start with a band, but as in this case, it can prove to be a hell of a hook. And digging a little deeper revealed that the band are not just another club-bound industrial band, but actually one that is rather nuanced and are happy trying their hand at various styles.
Which brings us to the new album. Quite some time in the making, and funded by the kickstarter model that has proven to be oh-so-useful for a number of artists of late, it takes a few listens to really get to grips with, and to dig into the detail within. The opening track opens with a heck of a crunch, mind – a pummeling, stuttering rhythm given extra clout by torn-up riffs, an ethereal, floaty female backing, and then there is Dave’s snarling delivery. No Steampunk adventurer here – instead a man that sounds on the verge of unleashing a hair-trigger temper, but crucially it sounds like a genuine fury. No aggrotech posturing, just aggro.
Dave continues to unleash his fury on the rather more conventional industrial stylings of Death Trap, with great synth lines and a solid, danceable beat. Well, that is how it first appears, before all kinds of string samples whip up a storm backing the chorus, and Laura McQuaig takes things on a diversion for a short while with her quite lovely vocals. Yeah, it sounds a bit auto-tuned, or vocodered at least, but in this rather harsh environment the use of her voice works really well as a counterpoint, offering light and shade that so many bands just can’t be arsed to do.
In fact, her vocals take centre stage on probably the finest track of the album, the storming No Thanks, which her vocal style makes it, and the song itself, sound reminiscent of The Azoic, before The Strand layer on the odd flash of cheesy synths, threaten to the song into a monstrous rave-up, and then Dave breaks the fourth wall in the bridge. Stay Home keeps up the Hi-NRG synths and bruising rhythms, but here the balance isn’t quite there and they seem to overpower everything else, with the vocals being half-buried. Still, it should make a pretty brutal dancefloor assault.
Things take a bit of a turn after this. Wear Down Me is a pleasingly retro industrial attack, the cut-up style and staccato vocals sounding very Puppy-ish (and it is referenced on the facts for the lyrics), while for You’re A Freak…it is industrial swing if you will, and less of a song of love than one of lust. But like everything else here, it is that bit more intelligent than ‘FUCK ME’ (etc) lyrics that permeate and pollute so much of the industrial scene, title notwithstanding. And the dual male/female vocals work brilliantly for this, too.
That Puppy influence rears the head again for Pay To Rock, but it isn’t so great. The one weak song on the album for me, this comes across as a mish-mash of styles that all collide rather than playing nicely. Too much going on, and not enough hooks. Hey Hey You, another where Laura’s vocals take centre stage, on the other hand, is a headlong electro charge that takes enough turns to keep things interesting.
Six Drink Max is another album highlight, a chaotic electro-industrial party track that this time gets the balance of styles bang-on, and rips through enough lyrics to cover about three more songs in just four minutes. Covering band drinking and partying on tour, on stage, clubland politics, and the sound of a band having a whole load of fun doing something they love. I would much rather hear this than moaning about time on the road. Bands make this choice, it’s a lifestyle, if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it…
The last song ups the ante that little bit more. Apparently with a BPM of 174, it is a heavy industrial track that rips through the speakers and comes across as a defiant “here I am” from lead vocalist Dave, and despite the pace and how hard it hits, like almost all of the rest of the album, it is a strikingly accessible song.
In fact, after ten years and a bit more, The Strand may finally have hit their peak. Over their previous albums, for me they have shown flashes of brilliance, but never quite nailed down a brilliant album overall – and this album changes that. A brilliantly varied and accessible album, showing both flashes of anger and humour, and never forgetting that music, no matter what the subject matter, is a form of entertainment. And this is entertaining, fun, and highly recommended.
And whether they are Steampunk or not? It doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. Less of a “Steampunk Industrial Band” than simply a “very good industrial band”.