2003 is a confusing, chaotic time for the average music fan. New genres are being birthed at an alarming rate and existing ones are being endlessly subdivided. Some might consider these new derivations exciting, but increasingly it's starting to feel like a chore to keep up. The situation has gotten particularly out of hand in the indie realm, where a movement that might have felt fresh only a year ago is already starting to go stale. (Hello, Jet and Star Spangles!) Part of the problem is the marketing, which has taken a more aggressive and insidious form, but even more troubling has been the sheer volume. Almost as soon as a band shows any kind of commercial success, their style is xeroxed and applied to yet another fledgling act. Rinse and repeat until any and all originality has been drained from the paradigm.
The Rain Band know something about this game; their lead singer, Richard Nancollis, played it once before as the front man for Sussed, a shoddy Oasis knockoff. The short-lived Manchester band released a couple of singles before Be Here Now effectively dropped the curtain on the Britpop era. Few come back from such a wipeout, but Nancollis has not only assembled a new band but appears to have learned all the right lessons: that it doesn't pay to blindly follow trends in search of success and that nothing truly worth fighting for ever comes cheap.
The self-titled debut album from The Rain Band would be remarkable enough for its complete disregard for the conventions of 2003. In a climate dominated by niche records aiming for small victories, The Rain Band goes for the big, grand statements. Throughout, you get the feeling that the band is baiting the press, daring to be dismissed as unfashionable goofs. While most of the current rock bands eschew production values in search of a more garage-oriented sound emphasizing the rattling crunch of guitars, The Rain Band have gone in the opposite direction, crafting a slick, groove-based record deeply rooted in '80s British post-punk and club culture as opposed to the facile punk of the '70s. This is not to say that The Rain Band are throwbacks or are out of touch with the present movements, but rather that they never completely give themselves over to an easily classifiable sound. Mellifluous New Order synth lines rub shoulders with the brooding menace of Honey's Dead-era Jesus and Mary Chain. The lush romanticism of Echo and the Bunnymen meets the melodramatic flair of Mansun. These sounds weren't meant to go together, but The Rain Band has thankfully thrown caution to the wind, and, in doing so, have achieved an alchemy that is at once ludicrous and irrepressibly brilliant.
But thankfully, this bold sonic stance doesn't merely depend on a well-honed aesthetic; The Rain Band is first and foremost an album of songs. This is one of the few records I've heard this year that doesn't try to slip a dud in hoping you won't notice. The 11 tracks are perfectly situated, beginning with the pristine, amphetamine-laced drive of "Knee Deep & Down" down to the sobering, reflective glare of "Into the Light". In between, The Rain Band delivers a dizzying collection of mind-benders. "Eye for an Eye" matches its sinister title with Nancollis's snarling vocals and some densely dark guitar fuzz courtesy of Mark Lee. "Long Day's Journey Into Night" coasts on a bed of amped-up guitars and a bass line that wouldn't sound out of place on Primal Scream's Screamadelica.
The Rain Band really hit their stride in the album's middle section, with "Ruins and Remains", "Lucifer", and "The Runaways". "Ruins and Remains" is the most thoroughbred dance track, drenched in post-Mondays sheen and elastic house. Boasting an ominously quaking guitar line, "Lucifer" finds Nancollis and Lee exercising their most instinctual and scorching rock intuitions, proving that they can wield brute force just as effectively as tuneful harmonies. But it's in "The Runaways" that The Rain Band have their true classic: a prodigious melding of progressive rock song structure and frenetic, oscillating beats, as Nancollis delivers his most bracing vocal turn, belting out perfectly vague lines like "Science is just fiction / When heels run to predictions" as if they were the gospel. It's a gorgeous centerpiece and the most arresting highlight in an album full of them.
So far, the album reviews that have trickled in from the UK have been tepidly positive at best. Considering the commercial titans of late, the reaction is really none too shocking. It's hard to imagine a time when being a British band has been more of a stigma than now. Unless you specialize in post-Bends twaddle (see Keane, The Delays, Starsailor) or your band is called The Libertines, lots of luck to you. The Rain Band offer no apologies for their Manchester pedigree or the pillaging of their country's rich musical past. Here is a band that not only has the nerve to be British, but flaunts it in their gloriously sprawling arrangements. But make no mistake: there is a future embedded in the stylistic gamut of The Rain Band, and it's an essential one given the America-centric vision currently being promulgated in their home country. Their sound may be somewhat removed from the present, but that's also what's likely to keep them around long after Craig Nicholls has returned to flipping burgers at McDonalds.
Striking a balance between the electronic and organic, between dour guitar rock and euphoric dance, The Rain Band is defiant without being overtly experimental, accessible without being willfully commercial, a rare moment of clarity amidst the creatively stagnant commotion of UK rock circa 2003.