“So, UNKLE has a new album out. I think I’m doing a review on it.”
“Really? What’s it called?”
“It’s, uh . different.”
James Lavelle is nuts. But maybe that’s UNKLE’s defining factor: James Lavelle is nuts. The man who started the band insists on full cardboard packaging on all of his CDs, possibly having some grudge against plastic. His albums, which started out creepy and cinematic, only get more so with every release. And his band roster is most similar to that of The Gorillaz, but without the successful gimmick of a cartoon front.
UNKLE seems to pick a new genre for every album, just because they wonder how it would sound if they did it. In the words of Lavelle, possibly the only real member of UNKLE, “If the first record was ‘UNKLE does hip-hop’ and the second record was ‘UNKLE does electronic,’ then this one is like ‘UNKLE does rock.'”
“Psyence Fiction” was UNKLE’s first record. There Lavelle sought to make a trip-hop album, enlisting DJ Shadow for a drum-laden and spacey soundscape. On “Never, Never, Land” Lavelle made an electronic album that described landscapes of darkness, concrete and steel. On both of these albums the sound was polished and, for the most part, clean. On “War Stories” Lavelle takes those dark cities from “Never, Never, Land” and shows how they would look if they were burned down to a fine, black ash.
“War Stories” is different, but it isn’t really a departure from UNKLE’s style. The things one would expect from an UNKLE record are still there. There’s still the almost-catatonic song that won’t quite pick up, even with defibrillators (“Price You Pay”). There’s still the manically driven drum song that inspires, or was inspired by, mental illness and high speeds (“Chemistry”). There’s still the ominous, apocalyptic and finally triumphant song that always plays out to be the best track on the album (“Burn My Shadow”). And there’s still every other song on the record, which just manage to be hybrids of these three tracks.
Not that these hybrids make bad songs.
In fact, all of the songs on the album are good. One other thing that can be said about UNKLE is that they don’t make bad songs. Lavelle’s gift for music isn’t in creation. He just has a great ear for music. So when all of the songs on an album are good, but the album still gets 4 out of 5, then what’s the problem?
Well, the music is good. The limited-edition version of “War Stories” comes with an instrumental disc to confirm this. And just in case people can’t afford to shell out the extra cash for that copy, the first song on the album is sans vocals. That one is just as powerful as every song on the album that’s been sung to. The instrumental disc plays out in movements that tell a story with dark language and paint a picture with muted colors. Even without words, the narration is obviously there, but it is never pleasant. Overall, this is a good thing.
Though the lyrics aren’t great, each phoneme plays like a different note on an instrument, using voices to add melody rather than convey a message through language. All in all, this is a positive thing.
So what, then, is the problem on this album? Sequencing. For most of the album, the sequencing is great. On the final stretch of the album, the songs start to become a bit similar. The sound on this part of the album is so homogenous that it is tiring to listen to. The last track, “When Things Explode,” fits perfectly as the last track of the album, but the other songs in this part of the record should be mixed up throughout the record.
UNKLE isn’t for everyone, and for newcomers, there is no place to start that is better than any other. With every record they risk losing their audience, and they have little promise of gaining new fans due to sonic change. For the few that UNKLE appeals to, “War Stories” won’t disappoint when given time. The album takes a while to sink in, but after it does, it will be appreciated as much as any great album should be.