The beginnings of what would become former Exit Calm guitarist Rob Marshall’s first album as Humanist started way back in 2015. With his band coming to an end and inspired to write by the sad death of British singer-songwriter Gavin Clark, Marshall challenged himself to stretch and tone his musical muscles. That soon led to his celebrated collaboration with Mark Lanegan on Lanegan’s excellent Gargoyle album. Buoyed by the critical acclaim that followed, Marshall continued to write, assembling a long list of extraordinary vocalists to bring grace, philosophical wisdom, and their unique artistic perspective to the songs. The finished album is a testament to the power of faith, perseverance, and having the conviction to push yourself as close to the creative cliff edge as one can comfortably get.
After an introduction consisting of swirls of layered synths, disorienting vocal loops, and the sound of a train rumbling past, the opening song of the album sees him collaborate once again with Lanegan. Initially, Marshall’s first choice for a single, “Kingdom” was written before his work on Gargoyle, and unsurprisingly occupies the same sonic space. With crunching guitars crashing against steady waves of cascading electronics, its deep-set sense of drama is the perfect compliment for one of Lanegan’s most intensely sincere vocals of his career.
On “Beasts of the Nation”, Marshall really bares his musical teeth. Again joined by Lanegan, the song opens with a positively filthy, lacerating guitar riff before settling into a dirty, disco groove, like the malevolent older brother of Lanegan’s own “Ode to Sad Disco” from his Blues Funeral album. What is often lost amongst lazy cliches about Lanegan’s voice is just how good a pop singer he is. His vocal hooks lock into the music like few other singers while still managing to ripple with frustration and anger.
With lyrics written by Lanegan, driving rocker “Shock Collar” rounds off one of the best opening album trios of the year so far. Joined by Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan. It’s a wonderfully expansive piece with Marshall adding subtle shades of echoing, delayed guitar. Lanegan’s lyrics energize Gahan as he inhabits the words and articulates them with strength and a sense of purpose.
On “Lie Down”, Marshall takes on the vocals on a brooding, atmospheric song that drifts to a euphoric, emotive chorus. Lyrically, Marshall focuses on how small and alone one can feel in a world that keeps turning regardless. On the intoxicating, “Ring of Truth”, he seeds a dark bed for Carl Hancock Rux’s intelligent social commentary. His razor-sharp couplets weave around rattling drums and atmospheric electronics as the pointed guitar lines cut through like a knife through a black curtain.
On “In My Arms Again”, Marshall employs DJ Shadow-esque breakbeats as the song shifts from downtempo electronics to crashing club freak out. Meanwhile, on “How You Holding Up”, Marshall is joined by Canadian songsmith Ron Sexsmith on a wonderfully tender indie-folk ballad. Even better still is the haunting “English Ghosts” featuring the Membranes’ John Robb, who croons and howls over a circling Krautrock groove. It’s a spectacular, evocative piece that conjures up images of those, long dead, that have trampled the same paths as we walk on today.
Marshall acknowledges that the album is heavy on male voices, so it’s a refreshing change to hear Ilse Maria’s sumptuous vocals on “Truly Too Late”, She brings a lighter touch that benefits the album as a whole. Likewise, the mix of artists working outside of their usual genre gives it added depth. The brilliant, “Mortal Eyes” revolves around a pulsing beat as Carl Hancock Rux delivers a hypnotic mantra of “Keep it going / Keep it moving.” while his narration flows and drips like thick, dark treacle.
Album closer, “Gospel” sees Lanegan return on a spiritual conclusion that bookends the album perfectly. Over rolling, picked guitar figures, Lanegan sounds like a priest, both taking solace in and battling with his faith. As the song builds to its towering climax, Lanegan’s yawning, cavernous vocals envelop the music before the whole thing collapses under the weight of battered drums and broken strings. It’s convulsing finish serves as the metaphorical death of the album freeing it to fall back into the abyss.
Considering the number of guest vocalists on the album, Humanist is a remarkably cohesive record. Its high-minded ideals of birth, death, morality, and one’s place in an unrelenting world are articulated by a perfectly curated list of singers who have all flown as close to the sun as anyone. Musically it’s rich in scope with Marshall pulling in all of his influences from post-punk to breakbeat to indie and krautrock and fitting them together like parts of a puzzle. The result is an album that was definitely worth the wait.