¡Forward, Russia!‘s debut album, Give Me a Wall, was one of the clear highlights of the dance-punk craze that rattled its collective hi-hat relentlessly for a while a couple of years back. The histrionically named Leeds four-piece boasted an urgency and intensity that many of their peers simply couldn’t match, their danceable rhythm section only one half a picture that also boasted inventive guitar noodling, a wildly theatrical vocalist and the occasional blistering surge of noise.
But while these traits ensured the gimmickry of matching T-shirts, songs that were numbered rather than named and, of course, a penchant for the Hispanic exclamation marks, were only a fleeting focus, ¡Forward, Russia! are admirably discontent to rest on their laurels. Indeed, going by their second long-player, Life Processes, the band’s name now appears less like an explosion in a punctuation factory and more like a mission statement. Forward, it seems, is the only way here, for better or for worse.
And it is for better and for worse, variably, as it happens. For Life Processes is a concerted step towards a bigger sound, more concerned with widening eyes than shifting feet. When it comes off, as on “Spring Is a Condition”, the band’s sound has evolved into something grand and dramatic, while retaining its sense of energy and freedom from bombast. But other tracks, “A Shadow Is a Shadow Is a Shadow” for one, struggle to accommodate this ambition and resort to pushing clamorous guitars and a fidgety vocal in no particular direction.
That said, Life Processes doesn’t have any particularly bad songs, just some that struggle to find sure footing in the step up in scale. The album does, however, take longer to sink in than its predecessor—had this review been written after just a single listen there’d no doubt be a lower number at the end of it—which more than anything indicates the band’s widened vision; the focus here is on the bigger picture, rather than instant gratification. This is most evident on the slow burners: “Some Buildings” is a seven-minute process of incremental growth, the steadily accelerating engine of Whiskas’s guitar underpinning a part-resigned, part-sinister refrain of “some buildings are built to be broken” before eventually breaking out into a towering conclusion. Single “Breaking Standing” is a creeper in an entirely different sense, initially underwhelming to those used to the raucous energy of Give Me a Wall but with a chorus that sounds more and more accommodating with every listen.
Even when instilled with a shot of Give Me a Wall‘s urgency Life Processes remains ambitious, however. Indeed, the album is persistently declaratory, its song titles often ringing out as proclamations (“Welcome to the Moment”, “We Are Grey Matter”, “A Prospector Can Dream”, “Spring Is a Condition”). It’s fitting then that those same songs should have a concurrent sense of importance, embodied both in Tom’s lyrics and in a sound that is frequently imposing. The former is both a blessing and a curse, with the apocalyptic to-and-fro of “Welcome to the Moment” suiting Tom Woodhead’s wildly oscillating vocal to perfection (“This a problem / There is no solution”) but “A Prospector Can Dream” struggling to bear the weight of the themes lobbed its way (“Did you ever study the Israelites? / They made a new life for themselves with such a peculiar change”).
Crucially, however, both tracks manage the balance of Life Processes capably, maintaining that drive while simultaneously spreading ¡Forward, Russia!‘s sound, and in particular Whiskas’s guitar, thicker than ever before. “Gravity & Heat” perhaps spreads it a little too thick—its heavier, power chord-laden sections carry a whiff of generic alt-rock—but its impossible to criticise the band’s choice to push themselves, particularly if it leads them writing songs like “Spanish Triangles”. The album’s nine-minute closer is a massive, yearning opus, its instrumentation steeped in post-rock but its vocal bordering on the anthemic, as Woodhead’s most assured performance yet segues into a collective, conclusive chant.
In the end, though, it’s “We Are Grey Matter” that epitomises Life Processes as a whole. As close to prog as dance-punk will ever come, the track blends together Give Me a Wall‘s synth (generally overlooked here) and angular guitar with Woodhead’s hyperactive histrionics, to create a twisting, unpredictable five-minutes that makes the occasional dash for the opulence of “Some Buildings”. The end result, though diverting, is a slightly uncomfortable mid-point between the two albums. And Life Processes could quite possibly be a transitional album, a first step in a bigger, bolder direction that doesn’t quite let go of Give Me a Wall‘s quirks; only time will tell. For now, though, ¡Forward, Russia! should be commended for broadening their scope and their sound, asking questions of themselves and their listeners in the process, when they could have sat pretty and cemented their position as dance-punk heroes.