These postmodern British soul brothers and sisters wipe the floor with Lenny Kravitz and the like.
You could be forgiven for thinking they just don't make 'em like the Heavy's "That Kind of Man". Announcing itself with an irresistibly bold blast of horns, skanked-out wah-wahs, screaming feedback, and a foundation-shaking rhythm, the track just doesn't let up. When vocalist Kelvin Swaybe's falsetto kicks in with "Heartless, heartless / I've got something on my mind,” it's as if you're hearing Curtis Mayfield fronting the Family Stone. The creeping, chantlike chorus only emphasizes that this isn't a song so much as a slab of soul and sweat, as dense and intense as anything from the heydays of Mayfield, Stone, P-Funk, or the Godfather himself.
I'm not that kind of man
Gonna stay around and plead
I'm the kind of man
Needs to live a little easier…
This thing kicks Lenny Kravitz's career to the corner and runs it over a few times for good measure. It's also the kind of track that so commands attention, it threatens to overwhelm in an album setting. But the rest of Great Vengeance and Furious Fire is tough enough to take the heat.
It's interesting that the album, which was released in the Heavy's native UK in October, 2007, shares its American release date with Gnarls Barkley's sophomore offering. In some respects, the Heavy could be Gnarls Barkley's British counterpart. Both acts share an affinity for genuine soul music and its roots in human suffering and psychological toil. This line, from Great Vengeance and Furious Fire's opening track, "Brukpocket's Lament", could easily be from Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo Green:
I saw my mother
Ma hold me still
I'm startin' to talk like I'm mentally ill
Indeed, Swaybe's high-pitched voice isn't far removed from Green's. Neither Gnarls Barkley nor the Heavy is a throwback act, though. The former derive most of their post-millennial tension from samplers and Danger Mouse's eclectic production. The Heavy drag their guitars, bass, and drums through a fuzzy, hip hop-informed postmodern sound-processing cauldron. While some of the sounds and girl-trouble sentiments on Heavy Vengeance and Furious Fire are timeless, the album has an unmistakably modern edge. That this edge has largely disappeared from today's R&B and indie-rock alike makes you appreciate it all the more.
Take "Brukpocket's Lament", for example. Its bottleneck blues is given cavernous production, spooky backing vocals, and Swaybe's best Tom Waits homage. "Coleen" goes heavy on the hip hop beats, while "Dignity" is Spencer Davis Group's "Gimmee Some Lovin'" as covered by The Stooges, producing a whole new kind of racket. Yet don’t think the Heavy are just using noise to cover up their lack of an ear for a tune. The effortlessly breezy chord progressions of the acoustic guitar-led "Set Me Free" are primed to be the soundtrack for the summer. "Girl" is the charismatic, playful Brit-rap that Mike Skinner seems to be less and less interested in. Slow-burning closer "Who Needs the Sunshine" gives a tasteful nod to Swaybe's and producer Corin Dingley's past with Bristol trip-hop collective Alpha. It's a fitting comedown for a wet, hot trip of a record.
Perhaps it's inevitable that not everything on Great Vengeance and Furious Fire completely hits the sweet spot. Acoustic ballad "Our Special Place", a US replacement for the grungy "You Don't Know", is relatively undistinguished. "In the Morning" brings on lots of fuzz, but to what end? With highlights so high, anything less suffers by comparison.
At a concise and LP-like 10 tracks, most of Great Vengeance and Furious Fire is highlights. In one crucial sense, the Heavy are throwbacks. They've delivered a bold, uncompromising, barnstorming debut without regard for current trends, fashions, or indie cred. You can dismiss lazy comparisons to Amy Winehouse and "dirty soul". The coolest thing about Great Vengeance and Furious Fire is it's too busy kicking your ass to think about just how cool it is.