Friday, September 7, 2012

Album Review: Adrian Sherwood – Survival And Resistance (2012)

The new Adrian Sherwood album, Survival And Resistance, is not quite what I was expecting. I’ve had a copy of it for nearly two weeks now and after listening to it a number of times, in a variety of different settings, encompassing a range of moods, I have to admit I’m finding it quite hard work.

It just goes to show: you can be a devoted fan, and know an artist’s work intimately over a prolonged period – in this case nearly three decades, but you can’t always predict what they’ll come up with next.

Okay, so he’s not universally recognised as a solo artist, and his best work has always been as a producer – primarily for his own On-U Sound imprint – but his two previous “solo” albums employed the same template of hard industrial-strength dub with a roots reggae tinge, and I’m genuinely surprised to see his third outing deviate so far from that tried and trusted formula.

That’s not always a bad thing of course. After all, change, artistic evolution, and progression beyond set boundaries are all things well worth embracing. If I’m honest, what I’m really struggling with in terms of Survival And Resistance is the notion that all of my own preconceptions about Mr Sherwood, and this album in particular, were so wide of the mark when it finally arrived. I don’t feel let down by it in any way, just um, a little bit challenged.
Billed in some quarters as Sherwood’s response to the 2011 London riots, not to mention wider global social and economic decay, I had fully expected Survival And Resistance to come out firing on all cylinders – with something loud, chaotic, and unrepentantly heavy. Or perhaps, given the album’s title, some hard-edged roots flavoured protest riddims.

What we get, however, is something far more mild and mellow. Something not unlike the sort of thing an ambitious mid-Nineties electronica act would have produced. Let’s just say that Survival And Resistance is more Massive Attack, or mid-tempo Primal Scream, than it is Tackhead or Pop Group (to name acts associated with Sherwood in the past).

My first listen was via headphones while walking along a deserted beach on a cold wintery Sunday morning, and I swear it was only the biting wind on my face and the volume key on my pod that kept me from nodding off. My second listen was also via headphones, this time on a crowded peak-hour commuter train, and yes ... this time I did actually fall asleep. Probably not quite what the good Mr Sherwood had intended ... this album is so laidback it’s practically horizontal.

It is also an album drenched with what feels like a super-sized dose of deep paranoia. George Oban’s bass provides an almost menacing pulse throughout, underpinning everything else. Only when you reach the end of the album’s ten-track 40-minute duration do you realise just how relentless and pivotal to everything the bass has been. When combined with the knob-twiddling and electronic wizardry of long-time Sherwood collaborator Crocodile, it helps create a dark lingering tension and a genuine sense of foreboding as the album progresses.

And if I describe it (above) as being mild and mellow by Sherwood’s standards, it’s merely because the whole thing is a brooding mass of strange and unusually low key experimental noise – it isn’t angry, or overly aggressive in any way. It isn’t in-yer-face. It doesn’t shout its underlying political and/or social manifesto; it simply seeks to push, prod, and prompt the listener on a cerebral level. It requires patience (and clearly, multiple repeat listens) before all of its subtle charms can be fully revealed.

Those charms include the sheer variety of sounds and instrumentation on offer – from all manner of electronic burpy and bleepy bits, to piano, synth, violin, cello, harp, and of course the trademark bluesy guitar work of two more veteran Sherwood collaborators, Crucial Tony and Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald. McDonald also contributes keyboards, and at times the downbeat nature of Survival And Resistance is reminiscent of McDonald’s best output under the ‘Little Axe’ alias, albeit less blues-based.

And naturally, there’s the full range of Sherwood’s unique brand of echo and dubby FX to indulge in. The production is practically faultless – just as you’d expect from any piece of work coming out of On-U Sound’s studio base in Ramsgate ... aka “The Care Home” (snigger – Ed).
There’s not much in the way of lyrical content. Vocals feature on just a couple of tracks – another old friend of Sherwood’s, Ghetto Priest, works some magic on ‘Trapped Here’, but I’m less impressed with ‘We Flick The Switch’, sung by someone called Lilli. That track feels almost contrived and rather superficial. More compelling is the trippy ‘U R Sound’, which features a number of (acid guru) Timothy Leary voice samples, and it probably rates as the best track on the album.

So yeah, that’s Survival And Resistance. For all of the positives, I’m still finding it quite hard work. In some ways – despite the presence of a strong supporting cast, and my own inability to grasp it immediately – it does feel like Sherwood’s most personal solo work yet. Where on previous albums he’s opted for a variety of vocalists to get his message across, this time around he’s largely content to let the beats do the talking.

Stand-outs: ‘Trapped Here’, ‘U R Sound’, ‘Starship Bahia’, ‘Two Semitones and a Raver’, and ‘Last Queen of England’.


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