by Tim Bustin
“The lines are joined by finding one another” – Aleksandr Rodchenko (album sleeve)
Looking set to reach number 2 in the charts, the Manic Street Preachers have returned with Futurology, an album which (unsurprisingly) is filled with their trademark leftist lyrics, complex and powerful music, guest vocalists and also delves into an untested genre.
Compare the European stomper singles “Walk Me To The Bridge” or “Europa Geht Durch Mich” (Europe Passes Through Me) to their Britpop classic “A Design For Life”, punk/indie “Motorcycle Emptiness” or rock “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”, and you will start to understand the contrast that exists between every album the Manics have ever made.
Recorded at the legendary Hansa studios (used for Bowie’s Heroes and U2’s Achtung Baby)”, every track is steeped in European history, modern politics, culture and art, both lyrically and musically – “Misguided Missile” most prominently shows off the krautrock feel that dominates the album, whilst “Europa…”’s relentless pounding enforces the building of “European skies…desires…roads…hopes”. If anyone assumed their most recent album’s (2013’s Rewind The Film, reviewed here) retrospective melodies of acoustic joy and beautiful vocals was the Manics musical norm, they’re in for a bit of a shock when they give Futurology a listen.
And despite the difference, Futurology appears to be their most masterful work in an age. Opening the album is the glorious sounds of the title track, moving onto “Walk Me To The Bridge” – with its stop-start verse-chorus transition, a real power emanates from the majestic chorus; the first play through is almost lyric free, allowing you to soak up the uplifting wonder (a call back to “Show Me The Wonder” on Rewind The Film).
Influences of the band’s sinister masterpiece The Holy Bible (twentieth anniversary this year and my analysis of the lyrics here) can be detected on the dark anthem “Let’s Go To War”. It is both a chilling tune, hardened by its intense drum patterns, and a heavy lyric: “Working class skeletons/lie scattered in museums”. This particular influence is continued in the instrumentals, where a heavy bass riff sets the foundation upon which cool yet intriguing guitar work and the odd synth build a mammoth skyscraper of a track – it rises and falls, appears to calm, then climax. Honestly it is utterly staggering, and to hear Manics' instrumentals (“Dreaming A City (Hugheskova))”, and also “Mayakovsky”) appear on the albums, rather than as B-sides as they mostly used to, is a great pleasure.
The use of guest vocalists, such as German actress Nina Hoss on “Europa…” is occasionally unnecessary, as lead singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield’s voice simply outperforms guest Green Gartside on “Between The Clock And The Bed”, but it still makes an emotional track, of a down beat guitar, intertwined with bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire’s gentle bass notes, set to a drum machine’s subtly industrial beat – “I’m well aware of happiness…but the simple struggle of survival/transforms itself into betrayal”. This is an album of introspective, combative and forward looking (hence Futurology).
Due to the great complexity with which the Manics now approach album writing, this isn’t a really a singles album, and secondary listens reveal much more about the music. The track just mentioned, for example, regularly changes tact, occasionally almost escaping the down mode, pausing and restarts – all managing to fit together like an intricate jigsaw. So to get the most out of the songs one listen is simply not enough. This may limit the album from reaching the number 1 spot in the charts, but, regardless, the Manics here have created another incredible work, interesting and thought provoking, proving that, despite 12 studio albums and 28 years in the business, it is certainly possible to not stagnate but to thrive, showing the trio to be a truly great band, that is still as important as ever.