While the UK music press in 2005 seemed to wet their pants with excitement over the never-ending dirge of skinny boys-in-bands with tight hair and even tighter trousers, they criminally ignored one of the indie albums of the year in Cuts Across the Land. Because they didn’t sound like the post-Doherty gutter punk or the post-everything angular art-rock that defined indie music in 2005 over in Britain, The Duke Spirit barely registered on most pop pickers’ radar. It’s a shame because this quintet from north London have been kicking up a considerable storm since the release of their Roll, Spirit, Roll EP in 2003, and it’s partly because their sound is a stark alternative to the wiry garage rock that has come as standard over the past 18 months that The Duke Spirit stand out.
If you like your rock and roll dirty, unbearably loud and downright f*cking sexy then The Duke Spirit could be right up your street. Combining the strung-out drone of The Velvet Underground, the all out guitar assault of Sonic Youth, and the dirty blues of prime-era Stones, the band’s debut album is never less than compelling. And while they might wear their influences for all to see, make no mistake about it, The Duke Spirit are onto something impossibly sexy. For the blokes this is probably down to the band’s blonde, snake-hipped singer Liela Moss, who possesses a rare voice that’s able to move effortlessly from a tender purr to an epic howl. It’s a stirring instrument, exuding in the slower numbers, a creepy, sensual paranoia, both unnerving and exciting in equal measure.
Though there should be an embargo on the lazy PJ Harvey comparisons thrown at any band with a female singer and electric guitars, on the guitar shredding exorcisms like “Win Your Love”, Moss’ grippingly charismatic vocals inevitably bring to mind Harvey at her most taut. You don’t quite know what she’s on about when shrieking, “Well I feast on those eyes/ And I’ll feast on those bones”, but whatever it you sure as hell wouldn’t say no. It’s these dark and burly wig-outs that separate The Duke Spirit from their indie peers and make their version of the blues so exhilarating. The early single, “Love Is An Unfamiliar Name” still sounds electric, as over tribal drums, the band cut an irresistible hip-shaking groove that builds to an almighty storm of guitars and feedback. Better still is “Hello to the Floor”, a shimmering slow dance complete with blasts of wailing harmonica. It sounds like the Velvet Underground on even worse heroin and it’s obviously brilliant. The burning “You Were Born Inside My Heart” has a feel reminiscent of the Dirty Three in the way it scratches around like a coiled snake, threatening to explode at any time before fading out with an unbearable tension. Elsewhere, the sugar coated thrash of Lion Rip is effortlessly catchy.
Most debut albums struggle to maintain such a relentless momentum, and indeed a few tracks in the middle do fall slightly flat. The mess of guitars in “Fades the Sun” fail to cover up a lightweight song, and at times, the dark swagger and sonic intensity of their live shows is not quite translated. For the most part though, this is about as good as it gets. The Duke Spirit aren’t the future of music, their influences are too present for that. What they are then, are a dirty old rock and roll band, bathed in shadows and soaked in soul. The guitars are loud, the sex is rough and you suspect the sheets are dirty. Cuts Across the Land is an impressive debut from a promisingly assured and frequently striking group. They might be in thrall to the dark mystery of the bands they name-check, but their spirit is without doubt their own. This record comes with enough bluesy soul and illicit thrills to demand your attention in 2006.