It seems to be increasingly difficult for modern rock bands to make their mark these days. Of course, various musicians and critics have been proclaiming that rock is dead for years only to be proven wrong by a new breed of rock musicians, hungry for success. However, while not anywhere near the doldrums, rock music does feel at least a little marginalized. Obviously, market forces and the waning commercial popularity of guitar music plays an important part, but the music press also has to take their due share of the blame. On the one hand, critics seem to be itching to lionize the next bunch of scruffy 20-somethings as the saviors of rock or write them off completely as dull rip-offs of what has come before. We may well see another band that matches the abilities of Nirvana or the Strokes, but it’s very doubtful that they will have the same seismic impact that the aforementioned groups did. Times change which inevitably means rock music will too.
The next wave of guitar bands will have grown up in the internet age where musical tastes have become ever more cross pollinated and diffuse with your average Spotify listener used to jumping from one genre to another. Therefore, it stands to reason that modern rock bands will surely incorporate all of those various influences into their sound to create something different to what has come before. Whether it be hip-hop, pop or R&B, it stands to reason that emerging rock bands will consciously or subconsciously assimilate their varied listening habits into their music. On Broken Machine, the second album from English rock band Nothing But Thieves, a contemporary rock band do exactly that. The result is a vital and dynamic rock record that hauls rock music kicking and screaming in front of the Snapchat generation and makes them sit up and take notice.
This, the band’s second album sees them working with renowned producer Mike Crossey. Working with Crossey, who has worked with Arctic Monkeys and Foals, was a very sensible move. He has clearly freed the band to express themselves while making sure that every song packs an intense visceral or emotional punch. The band sounds loose and hungry throughout, with songs invigorated with the passion that makes the band such a powerful live act.
The album comes out swinging with the thick, meaty chords and juddering riff of opener “I Was Just a Kid”. A song that matches the urgent, hard rock energy and nimble guitar interplay of the Foo Fighters at their best. The band adds a plaintive, swirling pre-chorus that adds beauty to the chaos before erupting into an earth-shaking chorus. “Amsterdam” slows things down momentarily with twinkling synths supporting simple power chords and driving drums. Before long the song launches into a colossal, anthemic chorus—the kind of chorus that makes you do things that little bit faster and probably not quite as well. It leaps and lurches in the right places, but there’s something more substantial going on here as the band leaves plenty of space for emotional engagement.
“Sorry” feels like the band’s biggest statement to date. The moment when their ambition, sense of scale and songwriting marry together perfectly. Conor Mason’s crisp, pained voice rings out over a single, simply strummed electric guitar before clipped drums compel the song forward as it transforms into a soaring, anthemic epic. Mason’s voice drips with emotion as he manages the admirable feat of sounding remorseful yet optimistic at the same time. In a song that deals with the importance of owning up to one’s mistakes, it’s impressive that Mason manages to find a fresh angle on a common theme. Musically, despite being a rock ballad, it owes just as much to pop in its structure and its sense of drama.
Nothing But Thieves continues to allow other genres to permeate their sound throughout the album such as on “Broken Machine” which incorporates the scuffed, single drum machine and bass led bounce and groove of modern hip-hop. Eventually, a spiraling, tumbling guitar chord progression and fuzzy riff braces the chorus to give the song some real bone and muscle. Thankfully, the different styles mesh perfectly to create something sharp and fresh. On “Live Like Animals” the band adds coarse, serrated electronics with machine gun vocals spat out with suitable disdain as Mason takes the British Tabloid press to task with the line “put our lives up for sale / get our truth from the Daily Mail.”
“I’m Not Made by Design” is another abrasive rocker but with the band giving the song plenty of time to breathe as they find space for swirling atmospherics and thick guitar chords, before launching into a riff that recalls Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. Elsewhere, the band follows the less is more approach on tracks such as “Particles”, a gorgeous, soaring ballad, and “Hell, Yeah”, which shows that even with the layers stripped away, the band knows how to write an affecting song with a keen sense of melody. Fitting finale “Afterlife” hints at what the future might hold for the band with chiming, ringing guitar notes, off center chord progressions, washes of synths and piano, that hints at an In Rainbows era Radiohead influence.
On Broken Machine, Nothing But Thieves have crafted a hook filled modern rock album that matches the ambition and intensity of any guitar band around today. Few bands can fasten the power of alternative rock with dramatic, soaring vocals and make it sound authentic. Nothing but Thieves do exactly that. It’s an album that proves that there are modern rock bands around with the confidence and conviction to take guitar-based music by the (devil) horns and charge it back into the mainstream.
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