Wednesday, 26 January 2011

White Lies - Ritual Album Review (2011)

There is nothing worse than a band being pigeon-holed. But every time you read an article, feature or review about London’s White Lies, the name Joy Division is never far away. Thankfully they have shrugged off these shackles with a new, more dynamic sound; and the same label is often added to bands that embrace the darker side of life. The trio quickly followed-up success in the BBC Sound of 2009 with a tremendous début album: To Lose My Life, backed up by solid singles, the ‘best new band’ at the Q Awards and fine festival appearances. Two years later a second album: Ritual is the result of building on this work.

As you would expect, Ritual continues the band’s obsession with the macabre and the twisted. Front man Harry McVeigh still has the perfect voice for this and his vocal has definitely matured on the second coming. If anything, the themes have become darker mainly thanks to the ambiguous references and metaphors littered throughout the songs; it is less obvious, adding to the intrigue – and in between the gloom and doom is real hope, or at least a hope of hope. But it is musically that White Lies have really improved, and combined with producer Alan Moulder, a fuller, deeper and more intricate sound helps the compositions rise above normality. In come electronic arrangements, 80s bass loops and layered synths transforming Ritual into early New Order or Depeche Mode, rather than the morbid depression of Ian Curtis.

With the exception of opener Is Love – from ominous start building into a vibrant combination of distinctive vocals, electro-dance, 70s wakka-wakka guitars and big beats – Ritual is built from shaky foundations. Strangers takes an age to get to a chorus that fails to pack a punch and only the last minute provides a lift. Likewise Bigger Than Us is a bizarre dual-paced verse-chorus-verse format that quickly gets repetitive. And the laboured Streetlights is one of few songs to suffer from trite lyrics: “Where I’m going I couldn’t care. I’m bored, I’m afraid, I’m falling like rain for you”. White Lies can do much better than this.

Thankfully it’s not all bad news. The brilliant Peace & Quiet is the first real sign that White Lies have moved on in a good way. A slow build-up leads into a gorgeous vocal blend complete with layered harmonies then a slick slice of pulsing bass. McVeigh croons: “I lay like a carcass, your lips never letting the blood dry”. The second half is swathed in strings before slow echo, an explosive outro and finally descending into post-radiation fizz. Holy Ghost is another wonderful swirl of rampant ideas, hard and dark as prostitution meets religion head on. The last minute is mesmerising.

Ritual moves into top gear in the second half with the impressive Turn The Bells, a bleak apocalyptic war zone of textures: “…Protectors unveiled for the first time in months…” and “You find best friends and we’ll hold each other” is excellent storytelling. The Power & The Glory continues the brilliant instrumentation, building vocally around a central theme formed within a simple idea. Moving past the out-dated and clunky lyrics of Bad Love, closer Come Down is the big emotional ballad – what it lacks in melody it makes up for with thoughtful emotion.

So ultimately Ritual is a fine effort packed with ideas and variation – all within a strict formula. Production, as you would expect from Moulder, is perfectly balanced with the strengths exploited and weaknesses (mostly) hidden; nothing is over-used or under-played. That said, the quality of the songs is a big weakness. Sometimes Ritual sounds huge but really isn’t; never style over substance or thinly veiled, and the weak parts are unashamedly on display – a problem as the band and the album has so many positives. McVeigh, Cave and Brown weave characters and stories together into a spellbinding concoction that compliments the real world of oppressive, gloomy post-new year winter recession.

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