30 August 2019
A hiatus can do wonders for a band. When England’s Futureheads last released an album, it was 2012, and the album was Rant, an odd – yet highly enjoyable – a cappella experiment. But mental health issues plaguing vocalist and guitarist Barry Hyde forced the band to take time off. The resulting break is evident with the youthful energy and clear-headed songwriting of their new album, Powers.
It should be noted that Futureheads aren’t reinventing the wheel here. In fact, except for Rant, their discography is full of fairly obvious nods to their UK punk predecessors. The Jam, the Stranglers, Gang of Four, and even more recent artists like Blur and Franz Ferdinand are embedded in the band’s sound. But that’s OK. The band – back with the original lineup of Hyde, vocalist/guitarist Ross Millard, bassist David “Jaff” Craig and drummer Dave Hyde – lean into their influences and update them nicely for the 21st century. The lead single and first track “Jekyll” is a breathless opening salvo that contains plenty of dark energy. “I remember a fight in school,” the band sings, “I was horrified / The evil grins and suffering / Burned into my mind.” The music’s frenetic pace seems to work hand in hand with the violence the lyrics repel.
The harmonies and winning melodies on “Good Night Out” suggest an updated version of All Mod Cons-era Jam. You could almost picture a young Paul Weller snarling out words like, “You say I want to be popular / I want to be relevant / I want to be politically engaged.” There’s a spiky, angular quality to “7:04” that sounds like an early XTC single. And while the politics on Powers rarely rear their head, when they do, like on the angry, jittery “Across the Border”, they assume a confident “state of the nation” stance that would do elder statesmen like Ray Davies proud.
While the band’s comeback status is evident and one would assume that Hyde has worked out his health problems, a couple of the songs touch on his struggles. “Headcase” and “Animus” address Hyde’s issues, but they act as catharsis and not exploitation. “My main thing was about accepting how my mind works and then trying to love that,” Hyde explains in the album’s press release. Whether or not “Electric Shock” is a direct interpretation of Hyde’s mental health treatment is hard to tell. But the song’s synth-sweetened mania is an irresistible nod to the mechanical machinations of early new wave.
On Powers’ closing track, “Mortals”, the Futureheads directly accept mortality, as the almost Krautrock chugging backs a very naked observation in the chorus: “Apparently it’s all a dream / And when we die it starts again.” It takes a lot of effort and maturity for a band to identify when things go wrong and make a decision to work it out. It’s also a great relief when a band can come back from that kind of struggle with something as strong and potent as Powers.
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