I typically loathe to make such grand pronouncements, but the Maccabees just might be the band British alt-rock needs in 2012.
Having first arrived on the scene as antsy Futureheads copyists, the Brighton, England-based Maccabees ditched the sharp angles, purchased a few Arcade Fire albums, and now enter 2012 as a panoramic stadium-ready act in the Coldplay mould. No, wait, hold on -- before you run away screaming from the five-piece’s latest LP Given to the Wild, please trust me when I say that the group is not as bland as such a comparison might lead you to believe. Yes, there’s an abundance of soothing sonic pleasantries that wouldn’t sound out of place in an office lunchroom, and singer Orlando Weeks’ timbre harbors a very strong resemblance to that of Chris Martin more often than not. But rest assured that such similarities only reflect badly upon the more-popular group. Indeed, a case could be made that Given to the Wild is Coldplay done right.
For Given to the Wild, the Maccabees eschew the angularity of 2007 (give or take the occasional guitar solo) for a more organic approach, where arrangements are allowed to unfurl and hooks glide effortlessly. The expansive sonic vistas the quintet imprints onto the record are enabled by generous helpings of guitars and synthesizers that betray the group’s lingering post-punk revival roots -- an intersection of crystalline and icy textures, as if U2’s the Edge had decided to drop in for a guest spot on an N5md release. Plenty of rock bands these days signify grandeur in a similar manner, but what really prompts instantaneous Coldplay comparisons is Weeks’ performance. It’s not merely a matter of similar tonal qualities (though the verses of “Child” and especially the shockingly familiar cooing on “Heave” will prompt hurried double-checks of the liner note credits). Like Chris Martin and that man’s obvious inspiration, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Weeks uses his voice as an atmospheric wash, exhaling a keening, chaste yearning married to lyrics indeterminable enough to signify a universal sort of uncertainty. “And I’ve been stranded / And I need something / Now I can see it / And I can feel it / I believe it”, Weeks ekes out on “Feel to Follow”, but what pray tell is “it”, precisely? No clues are given.
What separates the Maccabees from the ‘Play and its beigey progeny of blithely inoffensive post-Britpop balladeers is that there is a noticeable weight and depth to the music found here. In spite of their evolution, the Maccabees retain a firm grasp on what makes effective rock, and it is this understanding of the form -- the importance of beat and thrust, the need to inject a certain amount of oomph into the music -- that saves their anthems from acting as empty gestures. Though the synths and strings glint prettily before them, drummer Sam Doyle patiently awaits the perfect opportunity to lead his group forward in a bounding sprint, while bassist Rupert Jarvis’ instrument manifests a tone akin to a growly monster, one which dares to wind around the guitar lines in the sort of syncopated patterns British indie bands tend to refrain from. The divide between the dissimilar sensibilities can be likened to the immense gulf between heaven and earth, for the lighter touches positively levitate above the rumbling rhythm section bedrock.
While the Maccabees love to float in place, they are possibly even more content to grab a song by the reins and then charge forward with all due speed. Doyle’s busy percussion allows for full-bodied surges, retreats, and climaxes, and it is at these moments that Given to the Wild starts turning heads. “Pelican” may be the lead single -- with its halting chord crashes and stiff, mannered verses, it’s recognizably Maccabees, for what that’s worth -- but there is no shortage of worthy contenders for future a-side honors. “Heave”, for instance, bathes the listener in dewy synth-scapes and polite harmonies, only to partway through introduce a propulsive groove driven by Jarvis’ ultra-cool bass riff (the most memorable aspect of the entire song) that exits and returns until the curtain is finally drawn by sepulchral keyboard chords. “Child” utilizes a similar dynamic structure, where the drums fade away to cymbal shimmers before inaugurating a full-throttled drive, one that stops on a dime as the track’s conclusion ejects the rhythmic firmament to focus on the disembodied trio of voices, horns, and bass.
True, after an hour of the sedate giving way to the rapturous on a track-by-track basis, it all becomes routine, expected. “Forever I’ve Known”, for one, might have been better served if was allowed to retain its initial desolate vibe -- full of rumbling bass and spaghetti western guitar licks -- instead of developing into yet another pulsating rock monolith. That’s a small quibble, really (as is the “one size fits all” ambiguity of the lyrics), for Given to the Wild is an accomplished, filler-free record that presents a band at peak condition, handily exceeding the marginal example set by similar-sounding acts. Kudos to the Maccabees for finally discovering their true calling. By exploiting the tensions between pop bliss and rock catharsis instead of opting for new millennial British rock’s standard options of either lighter-swaying populism or overhyped indie un-ambition, the band concocts an approach that injects life into the flagging UK alternative scene. The LP has already given the Maccabees their best chart placement ever (number four in their home country), so it appears that the word is already spreading around. Who would’ve thought that those Futureheads fans from five years ago could’ve pulled this off?