[27 September 2007]
Something musicians and music critics generally detest yet easily fall into the habit of doing is assigning weightless labels and utilizing comparisons in their effort to describe an artist’s sound. While at times this process can amount to a necessary evil, (sometimes other bands or songwriters may be the only reference point the unversed listener has to hold on to), at others, it leads to misnomers. Take the term Britpop or Britrock, for example. These words have been used to describe a host of bands from the UK, yet what do they really mean? At a basic level, calling a British rock band a Britrock band is a fair assessment. Yes, the band members are British, and hopefully, they do rock. But the term also lumps unlike things together. Are we to assume all bands from that region share a majority of qualities in common? If so, an avid fan of Travis might find Arctic Monkeys cool but not quite what they were expecting. Over the last few years, the Britpop/Britrock designation has been used most commonly to describe bands like Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Keane and Athlete, groups that project their sound employing sincere everyman vocals, dynamic instrumental crescendos and hooks that soar through the ceiling. While there are absolutely distinct differences between these groups, their grouping by fans and reviewers, while not completely fair, is understandable.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Athlete’s latest effort is entitled Beyond the Neighbourhood. While the third album from this southeast London quartet (live, the group plays as five, with the addition of Weevil guitarist Jonny Pilcher) isn’t quite enough to cause them to eclipse their contemporaries, it does, at times, move them outside the sonic district they’ve shared with the aforementioned bands, as they incorporate electronic and ambient elements into their dynamic pop sound.
According to Athlete’s website, the group experimented with and listened to electronic music while touring behind the album Tourist in the spring of 2006. Eventually, the band elected to record their next album in their studio, without the aid of an outside producer. They decided upon two components that would mark the project: more guitars and more dabbling in the electronic.
Both decisions can be heard in the album’s exciting one-two opening punch. The opener “In Between 2 States” is a gorgeous instrumental cut that eases the listener into the album with its two-minute and thirty-second blend of ambient and atmospheric sounds. The anthemic “Hurricane” follows, a track defined by pulsing bass notes, melodic guitar passages and vocalist Joel Potts’ confident piloting. In tandem, these two tracks set the tone and mood of the album; Beyond the Neighbourhood is often reflective and introspective, but can become rousing and moving at a moment’s notice.
Not to be outdone by their predecessors, the album’s next two tracks also possess quite an impact. The driving “Tokyo” finds its identity in electronic flourishes and rhythmic piano figures. “Airport Disco” finds the band, as stated on their website, envisioning a future affected by global conflicts of the present, “where airports are used as nightclubs because flying is banned.” As Potts questions “Oh beautiful world, can I win you back? / Beautiful world, have you figured it out yet?”, the isolation in his voice is evident.
In fact, much of the thematic material on the album seems to be an attempt to address what bassist Carey Willets calls “the issues our generation is concerned and confused about.” On songs like “Hurricane” (inspired, according to Potts, by a National Geographic article which referenced climate change) and album closer “This Is What I Sound Like”, the band does not quite achieve any kind of grand political or social statement. The group does capably capture the voice of a young citizenship who is resentful of a perceived apathy on the part of the establishment yet isn’t quite sure how to provide a counterbalance or what issue to tackle first. On the latter track, Potts expresses this frustration with the words:
Do you know what we’re asking for?
‘Cos I don’t sometimes
I just want to kick off at something
Go to town and then make a scene
We’re not sure what we’re fighting for but we’ll fight
And I just want to give you something that I haven’t got
I’m a walking advertisement of both light and dark
Oh I’m not making any sense, I’m not making any sense
I mess up but don’t forget that…this is what I sound like
Other tracks that allow the band to shine musically include “Flying Over Bus Stops”, with its soft, shimmering intro and eventual dynamic build, and “Second Hand Stores”, where an opening swell of ambient noise leads into a more conventional pop/rock sound, of a high quality.
There aren’t too many instances of musical weakness on the record, though a few tracks are mediocre in comparison with the album’s most winning moments. Overall, this is a very strong effort from Athlete. Should the band retain the sense of adventure they employ here, there is exciting potential for their future projects. Taking their utilization of the electronic a step further, the band apparently has a dub remix version of the album already in the works; it will be interesting to see a fuller vision of how this process will have affected their music.