Friday, 11 November 2016

Young Legionnaire: Zero Worship

It was hard to believe that Young Legionnaire would write a follow up album to 2011’s Crisis Works that was better, or even just as good. A part of me believed it could be just as good, but second albums rarely hit the same nail on the head with as much precision. Thankfully the band haven’t even tried hitting the same nail and instead have left the indie feel of the d├ębut behind and gone for more of an alternative rock focus (though, to be be fair, much of Crisis Works was more Alternative than it was Indie – if that even means anything). This is a blessing in disguise, because it means they get to take some of the harder and heavier riffs that were at times less focussed on Crisis Works and infuse them with a Muse-like heaviness appropriate to the album. ‘Mortgage Rock’ from Crisis Works is more in line with what this new album is about, though also there’s a bit more focus on production as well.

‘Year Zero’ is a fine opener that cements themes, but also showing that this rock band can use their instruments to produce an Electronic vibe. The scrappiness of ‘Twin Victory’ and ‘Numbers’ can be found in ‘Heart Attack’, though in this one song there is also the low ebb that can be found in ‘Chapter, Verse’, but where ‘Chapter, Verse’ felt unnecessarily drawn out (at 5:16), ‘Heart Attack’ keeps it’s length concise and to the point allowing the odd time signature to thump out the chords and drag you through on it’s own.

‘Hail, Hail’ isn’t a cover of the Pearl Jam song and it doesn’t quite hit any high points until the 3-4 section – which is reminiscent of Shellac’s ‘QRJ’ – interrupts. Fortunately it is still good. In fact, it is consistently good, which pretty much serves as it’s own high point.
‘Simone’ is a tender song about the process of losing someone close, perhaps in a relationship, and later on ‘You and Me’ reconciles this loss with acceptance.

‘Candidate’ brings the staccato guitar and vocals, with rumbling bass underneath and another heavy riff interruption. Right when ‘Sawn-Off Shotgun’ feels like it added nothing to the poundingly heavy guitar attack and went by without even being noticed, ‘You and Me’ brings in the acoustic guitar to start the song off and replaces it with barely noticeable electrics again. This song is the calmest and most subtle with instruments working together as the song details regret and coming to terms with how a relationship has changed: “And I promise next time things will be different…”

‘Disappear’, the first single, ends up feeling the most like a song from Crises Works – remove most of the production and it would fit on Crisis Works no problem. On first listening to the album, ‘Disappear’ feels a little lacklustre – not so much the songs fault, but more at this point, it feels too similar to other songs. It is still a good song, but it doesn’t quite hit any highlights and here might have been a great chance to bring back some acoustics in the verses to add that much needed variety. In fact, I’d go as far to say, as my own personal preference, here is a song that I’d much rather hear in a full acoustic setting. ‘There Will Be An Escape Hatch’ is a sombre finale with softly pounding drums – the entire song reminds me a lot of We Were Promised Jetpacks.

Variety without tonal shifts are everything when it comes to helping an album feel like one unified whole and the album uses the wide ranging guitar riffs and time signatures to do this. What is missing from Zero Worship is the catchy chorus’s that catapulted songs like ‘These Arms’ into stratospheric flights of memorability. On the other hand, where Crisis Works relied mostly on the three band member set up and only added a second guitar track or backing vocals with some subtlety, Zero Worship takes this to a logical progression by focusing more on the soundscape and increasing the guitar and vocal layering with some subtle touches of reverb. Though an increase in production technique can at times feel a little overwhelming, especially when wondering if compression is an issue (on this album it’s definitely not), what really stands out is the fact that all three band members continue to be heard: from Paul Mullen’s distinct vocals and guitar playing, Gordon Moakes individual bass lines, and Dean Pearson’s solid, fluid, and never boring drumming – though perhaps the drums feel the weakest in terms of being heard through the guitar layering.

Overall, I feel that the album is so consistent in it’s quality, that it actually lacks a stand out track (they are all pretty awesome tracks!). And maybe this is just a personal qualm: there seems to be no ‘A Hole in the World’ that will serve as a template for my feelings in this part of my life right now, though either ‘Simone’ or ‘You and Me’ might just be that song for another person; no ‘Mortgage Rock’ that encapsulates everything I love about Hard Rock while still being firmly in the Alternative/Indie Rock camp, though the staccato guitars, drawn out vocals and catchy chorus of ‘Hospital Corners’ does well to bring me close.

If there’s one major complaint, it’s that the songs don’t really develop a great deal, if at all. Songs start and then end without much happening in between other than what you’ve already been hearing. Now, this isn’t just about dynamics, ups and downs, quiets and louds, it’s also about melodic shape, vocal tones, and chord changes. Often songs start and the vocals stay at the same register, chords often don’t feel like they’ve moved away from the initial harmony set-up – ‘Hail, Hail’ and ‘Sawn-Off Shotgun’ being major culprits of this. This is why I feel that ‘Disappear’ could have been on the previous album – the verse feels like a verse, the chorus feels like a chorus. While that’s not me saying “I just want standard song structures, please!” – you know me, I listen to Tool, Shellac and lots of Classical music – it’s the fact that often the songs haven’t done anything else once they’ve hit their end and there’s no breathing space in between. My favourite track from Crisis Works ‘A Hole in the World’ takes a catchy guitar riff and begins building the song up through verses without a chorus appearing until well past the half-way mark, and never returning to the verse after that moment. So what you get is: Intro/verse/verse/chorus/post-chorus/solo/chorus. A great build up of dynamics accompany this song structure – none of this inventiveness is present on Zero Worship, despite the polyrhythmic crossing of 3-4 (bass and drums) and 4-4 (guitar) in ‘Hail, Hail’s breakdown section, the title track’s nervous guitars exploding into frustrated choruses. If there had been some more melodic variety, if there had also been some more acoustic variety – even just acoustic guitar outside of that one place in that one song – this album would have easily hit a perfect score. I can’t help love, and come to love, every song on this album, but my objective criticism is that I can’t see it lasting long before the familiarity wears a little thin.

If you’re interested in the lyrics and themes of the album, please read Gordon Moakes’ Medium article about how the ideas came together and what drove the making of the album: Making Music About the End of Music.

The ‘Zero Worship’ theme running through the album is pointedly about not following orders, the cover being a middle-finger to corporate life, beautifully packaged on an independent album financed entirely through a pledge music project making it a success without the financial backing of a corporation. Considering the state of current affairs, this album feels timely, and is a reminder of where worshipping with thoughtless devotion can lead a populace.

With all this in mind, Young Legionnaire’s second album Zero Worship without a doubt is great, it deserves to be listened to and supported, it’s themes are current while also timeless in their concerns for humanity and the individual. But if the world’s masses don’t get to hear the touchingly beautiful ‘You and Me’ then it will be a great loss to many starving eardrums.