EXCLUSIVE WORLDWIDE FIRST REVIEW OF
THE U.K. SUBS' BRAND NEW STUDIO ALBUM
By Mark Chadderton
WORK IN PROGRESS
(Captain Oi Records - AHOY CD 310)
Released January 2011 (TBC)
SUBS SERVE UP STUNNING NEW LP
The U.K. Subs’ brand new studio album, ‘Work In Progress’, their 15th, and their first for around 8 years, is simply stunning. Chock full of instant classics, rousing sing-along choruses, catchy tunes and glorious guitar led punk, pop, garage and Rock ‘N’ Roll, this really is… wait for it! …possibly their greatest album to date?
Heresy I hear you holler! What about the band’s revered debut ‘Another Kind Of Blues’, the awesome follow up ‘Brand New Age’, the rough diamonded ‘Diminished Responsibility’, the never to be eclipsed ‘Endangered Species’, or the heady ‘re-union’ rush of ‘Quintessentials’ and ‘Riot’… or even the excellent latter day uncompromising and underrated ‘Universal’?
Nah! Forget them, this is the one!
No, really I mean it. ‘Work In Progress’ (WIP) is the true Subs work of art!
Forged over a four month period of rehearsal, demoing and studio work between June and September 2010, WIP provides many facets of fabulous music. The musical variety is something that grabs you on first listen, and on each subsequent hearing, you begin to pick out many depths of subtle musicianship, lyrical invention as well as ironic humour to boot!
The real show stealer is Jet’s guitaring on this album, there are some truly memorable ‘classic Subs’ solos here, but also an amazing assortment of guitar work that hasn’t been on a Subs album since Garratt’s glorious stuff on ‘Endangered Species’.
We also get some great backing vocal choruses and melodies, a terrific Charlie vocal performance, along with some marvellous drumming and burning bass lines.
So slam on this superb CD to get 14 slices of aural delight. There is just over 41 blisteringly enjoyable minutes. Never mind the overlong modern CD lengths of an hour plus, plus secret track… The Subs blow your mind with shorter, razor sharp songs, with 13 of the 14 offerings clocking in at between 2 minutes to around 3 and a half. 3 listens in and you will be whistling some!
All great albums have a knock-out opener, and WIP certainly provides that, and then some. Kicking up a storm and kicking off with CREATION, a terrifyingly terrific tune by drummer Jamie Oliver, which has already become a recent Subs fan favourite after its initial appearance on the ‘Warhead’ 2008 CD EP, this stomper of a song really couldn’t have thrown down a better marker for the album, in that it actually betters its previously mentioned incarnation. Slightly re-arranging the lyrics, chorus and actually adding muscle to a real hard nut of the song it was before… it’s as if the Subs want you to draw a sharp intake of breath, take you by surprise and knock you off your guard in your expectations from the very start.
Without actually saying so, 'Creation' roars outta yer speakers, kicks you in the balls and proudly proclaims something along the lines of: 'Yeah you thought that was great? Well listen to this then!'
The Subs have a history of quickly re-recording songs as well as going back to old classics, for example, the early single B-sides on the debut album, the re-recording of ‘Party In Paris’ in French, the whole LP ‘Time Warp’ as well as ‘Motivator’ and ‘Riot’. You could argue that none of the above improved on the original recording(s), so for Creation to be knocked into better shape from its classic original of a couple of years back, therein lies an indicator of just how good this latest Subs Long Player is.
Even Charlie’s early lines in this skeptic-inspired song sum up the whole album! “Blow our bodies, blow our minds…”
And when you think about it, is it any wonder that this version of the Subs have delivered such a gem. Bassist Alvin Gibbs is here for his 6th studio album proper with the Subs, more than any other previous serving Sub… his writing rapport with Charlie is augmented not only by Jet’s aforementioned brilliance but by the delicious drumming of Jamie, who not only writes songs but also plays guitar on a couple of tracks on WIP.
In fact, Jamie will soon be the longest continuous serving Sub of all time, behind Mr Harper… so you see, this quartet have honed their live performance over years of playing together, and it has paid off in spades, for this first time together writing an album.
Four long serving Subs, all bringing their strong ideas to one album, even over a limited period of creative and recording time, have certainly produced a real classic.
So, 'Creation' sets the tone, but then we are straight into the album’s catchiest, dare I say it, almost pop-like song that is TOKYO ROSE. An instant guitar hook grabs your ears as Charlie uses his Japanese travels and influences to give us a fascinating song about ‘lovers’ meeting in Shibuya “by the statue of Hachiko” with an instantaneously memorable chorus. The song’s slower pace allows time for some chugging guitar/bass lines to lead into a fabulously fine Jet guitar solo. The fact that the eponymous character name of the song title was a notorious generic name given to English speaking radio broadcasters of Japanese propaganda during World War II, helps highlight Harper’s lyrical depth here, with the cultural dichotomy of using Hachiko, another Japanese icon, who was a much loved dog, famous for being faithful and true.
So two tunes in, the first an ear-bleeder and the second a ‘softer’ song… however, no time to hang around the same mood much, as variety is key to this album’s genius, and so onto track 3 and HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE, a heavy scorcher destined to be a live classic for years to come, made for the moshpit you might say! Even though the lyrics indicate a search for a quieter life!
With a song title inspired by the famous quote from the French philosopher and writer Jean Paul Sartre, and driven by some beast like drumwork and bullet firing bass, another catchy chorus and Jet’s rising flame of a guitar solo to end, this really is the Subs at their noisiest best. Hell, Charlie even throws in a bit of humour with “So maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the age I’ve reached…” as after a while his smile dissipates and he starts to think Hell is other people! The lines “Grew up with a chip, one on each shoulder – But I found the truth, before I got much older” are classic Harper and the vocal delivery is punk rock at its finest.
THE AXE is next up, with its catchy “Oh Oh” band chant to start. Another slower number, and one of the longer lyrics on the album, this is Charlie’s take on recent political events and the Bank greed caused austerity cuts of “when the axe comes down.” Some classic Subs chuggy guitar and Oh Ohs make this another melody that sticks in the head, even without the totally unexpected comedy musical ending to the song by Alvin, Jet and Jamie!
The next offering is RADIO UNFRIENDLY, another belter of a song that would have sat easily on the ‘Quintessentials’ or ‘Riot’ albums, but as a stand out track! Charlie riles against the “sludge fest” of “girl and boy bands” on our airwaves, and the bribery of the major labels to play “the middle of the road”, but again it is the chorus that has you singing along instantly with its “Radio unfriendly, playing the same thing over, radio unfriendly, collecting your payola” really making you think that in a world without the meddling of the majors, this is the sort of captivating song that should be a hit! The reference to the payola scandals in radio history is particularly good, and Charlie gives out the best advice when he extols the virtues of the D.I.Y ethic in the ‘music biz’. His use of a radio sounding broadcast, slightly distorted voice to repeat the chorus works really well and we also get another reference to the singer’s age, again, with a huge slice of comic irony, with the fade out “yeah I think it’s just me, I’m getting old and cranky, it’s just opium for the people, I need something to believe in, before I stop breathing!” Brilliant stuff.
THIS CHAOS swaggers into our earlobes straight after as Charlie makes magic a lyric written by ex-Subs and Rancid member Lars Frederiksen. Apparently, Lars penned a song based on some words Charlie jotted down when he was with the Subs years ago! Lars has always wanted Charlie to sing this particular song, and he will no doubt be impressed with this. Once more we get a class chorus, with an intriguing cutting of the word ‘civilisation’, perhaps signifying the break up of our world, along with another searing guitar performance, and some question and answer Charlie and band singing interaction. Another live favourite for the immediate future I’m sure, it is already in the current Subs set, and set to stay I’d say!
The next track gets us to around the half way point on the CD, or the end of side one for all you vinyl-heads out there… and what do the Subs do? Well, the diversity continues apace as we get an Alvin Gibbs penned and sung song, which is not only Gibbs’ most brilliant ever, but also a contender for the best song on this wonderful slab of sparkling sonic (punk) rawk joy.
GURU has everything, a killer tune, killer lyrics and killer chorus. Some biting satire (“he dresses like a Sikh, but lives in Haywards Heath”) sits in there as well, as Gibbs’ witty take on those “spouting mysticism and transcendentalism”, selling you lies “whilst sleeping with all your wives” humorously highlights the ridiculousness of certain ‘Gurus’ and religious beliefs.
The question that is the chorus (“what you gonna do when the truth kills your Guru?”) is chillingly simple yet skilful, and works on different levels, as does the straightforward put-down observation of “collecting big fat cheques, from all you spiritual wrecks.” Guru is an early candidate for best song released in 2011 in this reviewer’s book! A truly exceptional song.
EIGHTEEN WHEELS rolls up next, a trucking song would you believe, but one of the catchiest of the lot. There is a stop start feel to the music reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, which mirrors the song subject (long journeys?), and Charlie’s pared down lyric pleading “Oh I am what I am” could be analogous to his life on the road with the Subs’ ‘on tour forever’ mantra. This is the real grower on the album, as Jet’s guitaring will have you whistling along in the car after a few listens on your stereo… and there is also Alvin’s rumbling bass to marvel at, which works fabulously as a sound akin to the topic of the song title.
Surprised at the last song? Well get your lugholes lubed for some quite stupendous guitar-gymnastics on CHILDREN OF THE FLOOD, as Jet works in some wonderful wah wah on a Subs album for the first time ever, to provide the appropriate underwater sound effect that underpins and makes you take notice of Charlie’s most political commentary on WIP.
Inspired by the recent, all too regular, news stories of floods worldwide, the opening verse of “Shall we say man has had his day, no more history it’s over, the struggle has begun for generations to come, no more honey no more clover” is surely up there with Charlie’s bleakest song-lyrics he has ever written, but the seriousness of the global climate question deserves nothing less than startling observations to get us to think and act, for, as Mr Harper pertinently points out later in the song, the politicians simply talk about it “forgetting there’s a crisis”. Yet another stunning chorus and the subject matter surely make this a modern day ‘Warhead’ for the new generation of Subs fans out there.
ALL BLURS INTO ONE features Jamie on guitar (he also plays guitar on Radio Unfriendly) and has a similar light feel to the guitar sound on ‘Lower East Side’ off the ‘Killing Time’ album. This is another memorable tune, with its touring theme, which crops up throughout the album, and once more, Charlie infuses humour into his observations on time passing, and where his memory is at! The lines about being thought dead after waking up in a dark park having “a strange thing over my head, a wreath or two, they thought I was dead”, playfully allude to his longevity, but the laugh-out-loud lines that follow of “is it 77? Is it 2001? I don’t care, I’m having too much fun…” perhaps provide the key to the Subs’ long running success and popularity. The effects of continual touring crop up once more in the verse “Don’t ask me the time of day, my memory fails me, just don’t know what week it is, or the time of the year…” but it is the changes of pace throughout the song that draw you in, with some clever spaces being created before you are blown away as the band crank up to full noise.
The next song, BLOOD, is a real blast. A real rocker of a song, with some dazzling drum-dynamics from Jamie, playing off Jet’s gutsy guitar. The lyrics again touch on playing live and the touring theme previously mentioned, as the crowd demand blood from the band. Some well placed backing vocals carry the song to its conclusion, and as Charlie’s words suggest, surely Jet would have had ‘blood on (his) guitar’ after recording this corker.
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL WHORE is perhaps the most throwaway song on the album, but in being so, it also is the most fun, and highlights a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously, is at ease with itself, and as a result of that, can carry off such a track as this. The lyrics were recorded almost adhoc in the studio, but Charlie still manages to come up with some amusing and entertaining lines about groupies, whose “heads are always in the stars.” The music is also of interest as Jet transplants a slice of Chinese Rocks’ riff into proceedings, as he moves the music from a 60s style to modern. It is informative to hear the band occasionally showing their musical loves and influences on their sleeves on this recording, as it were. It is another factor that adds to the overall enjoyment of this album, as it is ingeniously done, adding another intriguing layer to the band’s creative process. Of course, the slight use of that famous rock ‘n’ roll riff seems just right to add a suitable, understated subtle historical soundtrack to this particular song’s subject matter. And so another catchy Jet solo works perfectly at the closing stages as the song fades out for some more Subs fun!
…which comes in the form of their most inspired cover version since ‘She’s Not There’ over 30 years ago! 60s American garage band The Sonics’ love song to the crystalline poison STRYCHNINE, is consummately dealt with by Charlie and the boys as they rock out, and you can almost feel the fun they would have had putting this track down in the studio. Some suitable Harper howling and Jet’s “Strychnine” echoing notes after the song title is sung are specific highlights. The band have been playing this number live for over a year and no wonder it feels perfect, and almost one of their own amongst all the other original compositions. As cover versions go… just what the Doctor ordered!
ROBOT AGE provides the finale to the album. The title is taken from the famous bootleg LP of a Subs 1980 Milan show supporting the Ramones called ‘Dance And Travel In The Robot Age’. This is another grower that gets in your head and remains there, in the same way that ‘You Can’t Take It Anymore’ did on ‘Brand New Age’, and the repeated lyric of “God did not make man, man made God” blends brilliantly with the chorus of “Dance, travel, in the Robot Age”. Once more the band rock out superbly, Jet’s wah wah resurfaces, and the machine manufacturing stamping sample that bookends the song, is mixed in with the music to great effect. Its message of have fun and ignore the influence of religion provides a suitable ending to an album that provides much to think about and, most importantly of all, to admire and enjoy.
So there you have it. WIP delivers the variety and brilliance to put it up there with the best. Whereas nearly every song on the last proper studio album ‘Universal’ was political, and so perhaps was too heavy handed in its overall venom, here we have an album that sees the Subs in a more reflective but positive state. There is still fire in their bellies, but this time around their armoury isn’t simple sloganeering. Targets are attacked and undermined with wit not spit, and it is all the more thought provoking for it! There is much light and shade here, but the overall feel you get from listening repeatedly to it is one of exhilarating excitement, elation, delight, inspiration and enjoyment. It is no coincidence that when you go to see the U.K. Subs play live, these emotions overwhelm you. To have captured that effect on this recording is nothing short of miraculous.
The production works wonderfully too, some recent Subs recordings have been a little hollow and flat, and for this commentator, the drums haven’t sounded great, but thanks to the excellent working relationship the band have with Pat Collier, in whose studio this album was recorded, the sound on WIP is spot on. You also need some luck on your side if you are to succeed, and even though the running order of the album follows the songs as they were recorded, that works amazingly well too.
So, despite its moniker, this new Subs album is a first-rate finished article with a multitude of layers (musically, lyrically), themes (religion/touring/age) and thrills to admire and love, but don’t take my polemic for it! Go and grab yourself a piece of pure punk pleasure to start your 2011 off in the best possible way you could.
‘Work In Progress’ is a hugely satisfying and exceptional collection of songs. Truly remarkable. I very much doubt any other album released this year will surpass this instant Subs classic. Let’s hope Charlie, Jet, Alvin and Jamie get back in the studio as soon as is humanly possible.
Next time though Charlie, don’t forget your harmonica!