The English punk duo's bark lacks bite on this sophomore effort.
It’s kind of inevitable that rock bands will decide to use their platform to voice their dissatisfaction with the world. In many respects, this can be something of a double-edged sword: if an album is determined to be too preachy, then the band risks alienating its fanbase. Similarly, it's difficult to become a serious political band overnight. You don’t necessarily have to be espousing Chomsky-level critiques of capitalism, but you do have to have something worthwhile to say. Only 16 months after the release of its debut and the accompanying exhaustive touring schedule, Slaves returns with its second long player, Take Control. It finds the duo (Laurie Vincent and Isaac Holman) attempting the unenviable task of adding more substance to their abrasive, reckless sound by addressing the political and societal corruption and imbalance in the world today.
There were noticeable signs on their debut (2015’s Are You Satisfied) that they could commentate on serious issues. However, that album was refreshing in its ability to send up the drudgery and mundanity of day-to-day life with lyrics that dripped with scorn and irony. Here, the band takes on the bigger picture, taking aim squarely at the disenfranchised, the 1%. This is a much more serious album that is desperate for authenticity, with much less room for the humor so evident on their debut. While the music on the last album was joyously ramshackle and teetered on the edge of collapse, the band now clearly tries to connect more fully with the origins of punk. (In part, this may be a reaction to previous criticisms of their cartoonish. onstage personas.)
When the songs connect, such as on opener “Spit It Out”, the effect is unrelenting and thrilling. It’s not easy to manage sneering, reckless punk that doesn’t whiff of pastiche, but this is arguably one of the best songs they’ve produced so far. Generally, this is a much better-produced album than their debut, too, and the high points arguably eclipse anything from that record. For instance, “Consume Or Be Consumed” sounds like Queens of the Stone Age being savaged by an attack dog. It barrels along, driven by a cranking bass line peppered by Issac Holman’s machine-gun-paced vocal delivery. As for the title song, it's one of the heaviest songs they’ve written; in fact, it sounds like it could trigger the collapse of an abandoned building. Guitarist Vincent has certainly developed a lot in the last couple of years, as he's added a few more tricks up his sleeve. “Play Dead” is marked by a stalking, doomy riff, while “Lies” is a hip-shaking ode to classic rock n roll guitar playing.
There are plenty of examples of untempered rage as well, such as on “Fuck the Hi-Hat”, which hits hard with a furious, spontaneous burst of punk energy. It’s a pleasure to hear something so raw and off-the-cuff unencumbered with making a big, bold statement. “Steer Clear” features the incisive and matter-of-fact observations of Baxter Dury. It provides a welcome change of pace on which the pair allowed to show off their less-is-more aesthetic. “STDs & PHDs” adds some variety (including a menacing stomp of a keyboard riff), and Holman does his best John Lydon sneer, which is reminiscent of his work with Leftfield in the mid-nineties.
Unfortunately for the band, the almost beyond satire recent political events render the force of their polemic a bit blunt and passé. Many of the lyrics lack potency and ring a little hollow, and on occasion, they come across like someone on Facebook raging about conspiracy theories at 3:00 a.m. rather than valuable social commentators. “Consume Or Be Consumed”, for example, is reassuringly angry enough; nevertheless, it doesn’t quite ring true as the rousing anti-consumerist anthem it clearly wants to be. Likewise, “Rich Man” tries to make a salient point about the haves and the haves nots, but the barbs against a rich man with a gym membership seem a bit trite and toothless. It lacks the well-observed wit of Blur’s thematically similar “Charmless Man” and, at times, seems like a more charmless (‘scuse the pun) retread.
Additionally, the album is crying out for a bit of quality control, as there is a little too much filler on here. At best, these songs meander with no real destination, such as on “Cold Hard Floor” or on the plodding “Angelica”. At worst, they feature such banal lyrics and rehashed song structures that they grate very quickly, such as on “People That You Meet”. All things considered, it all feels as if the album has come a bit too quickly after their debut. It sounds a little too rushed like a few more months gestation might have produced a catchier melody or hook.
While it is admirable that the band is keen not to be seen as a passing novelty, by taking aim at corruption, inequality and authority something has been lost that made the band so unique and so much fun. Political punk bands such as Crass may have been confrontational and hostile, but their targets were always justified and their criticisms impressively thought through. They also managed to incorporate just the right amount of sarcasm and wit. On Take Control, Slaves show glimpses of astuteness but these are often mitigated by hackneyed lyrics. This should be the revolutionary punk album that music and the wider world desperately needs right now. Sadly, it falls tantalizingly short.