On this solid debut, the band shows a great approach to punk music, one that includes a pop sensibility without letting it sand down the edges.
The Computers may need an image makeover. The clean lines on their artwork, those slick haircuts, even that name -- it all points to a love for '80s synth music. You'd certainly be forgiven for mistaking them, at first glance, for some sort of New Order or Kraftwerk acolytes. Of course, maybe that'll teach us not to judge a record by its cover, since This Is the Computers is about as far from clean synth-pop as you can get.
What you do get, instead, is four British dudes trying to melt your face off with some lean, fiery punk rock tunes. Despite their stylized image, there are no real frills to their sound -- the guitars buzz, the drums crash, the vocals scream. The record was recorded by one of the great purveyors of this kind of sound, John Reis (Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, Obits), and using his home to lay these tracks down fits perfectly. There are no overdubs or tweaks; the album was recorded live in studio and the results are surprisingly sharp from beginning to end.
The Computers lay their intentions plain on the blistering opener "Where Do I Fit In?", a barely-over-one minute call to arms for those on the fringe. They come out all piss and vinegar, as singer Alex Kershaw screeches about how he's felt "no connection to the places [he's] been," and his worry is so great he goes yelling for help later, when he screams "Father, are you listening?" This combination of rebellion and searching, of fierce will fighting with helplessness, sets up the album nicely, as they do seem to be finding their place in the world, as a band and as young men confused by its machinations.
As they search for their place, they try filtering different sounds through their snarling rock. "Lovers Lovers Lovers" thickens the mix with a jangling guitar up front, while "Cinco de Mayo" rides on a sped-up surf riff that fits the song perfectly. Elsewhere, on "I've Got What It Takes (Part 3)", the band switches gears completely, turning Kershaw's primal shriek into a more tuneful yell as they try a rockabilly-bounce on for size and find it fits quite well. Other experiments, like "Hot Damnocles", don't fare so well. The song sticks out like a sore thumb. It's furthest from the band's comfort zone, but its trudging, formless anger sounds like an awkward take on nu-metal.
Still, there are other moments that show just how dynamic the band can be. Album standout "Rhythm Revue" maintains the band's fury, but its slick riffs recall early Elvis Costello in the best way possible, though the players make the song their own by shifting to an angular breakdown seamlessly. "Music Is Dead" bursts to life with off-kilter drums and snapping riffs, and Kershaw is at his most snarling. "Music is dead along with every honest mechanic," he spits out at the song's start, driving home the angry, youthful energy that has charged through the whole record.
If there's trouble with This Is the Computers, it's that maybe they haven't quite set themselves apart from other punk screechers yet. They have a great approach to punk music -- one that includes a pop sensibility without letting it sand down the edges -- but you can feel them still growing into themselves. This is a great first record for a band with a lot of promise, one of those pure rock and roll bands that has all the electricity and licks they need. Kershaw has all the swagger of a leading man, and lyrics like the cutting ones on "Music Is Dead" show him more than capable of catching a moment, though sometimes they can slip into an anger too frustrated for its own good. "Yeah Yeah Yeah But…", for example, cries for revolution, though we're not sure against what. Lucky for them, though, the winning moments outweight the stumbles on an energetic rock record. So stop looking at the artwork and wondering how into Joy Division these guys are and give them a listen already.