At some point in their musical career bands come to a crucial point where they can go one of two ways: Either stay forever that band, that had a fresh sound five years ago and did their thing forever on, or take the challenging step to develop further, leave the known territory and explore new ways. As a duo there is an extra crux: The musical possibilities in its purest from are limited. To sound interesting and not repetitive, many rock and indie duos often widen their range by introducing new features. This may not always be the best idea, if you look at Johnossi, where the new introduced synthesizer sadly just led to limitation and stagnation. But it can also lift the band onto another level.
British alternative punkers Slaves are exactly at that point in their career. Their first LP Are You Satisfied? put the duo in no time on the stages of sold out venues and even brought them a nomination for the Mercury Prize. Benjamin Clementine ended up winning that trophy, but the hype around the two London-based musicians went on. And music prizes are nothing for punks anyway, right? The question how ‘much’ punk the two actually are, is a controversial discussed topic with the criticism of being middle-class punks with pseudo political slogans, who lived at their well sheltered parents’ house. But what does it mean to be punk in 2018 anyways? ‘Well, good question. I guess, just being socially aware of what’s going on,’ Isaac Holman, one part of the duo – rhythm section and lead vocalist – answers. Being blindly against the establishment is a topic taken by the right wing. Today’s topics to the define oneself as politically left – or even punk – have to deal with a more global perspective, that goes beyond national identities.
This global, or let’s say more complex point of view on certain things is hearable on Slaves’ new record Acts Of Fear And Love. The title itself is a bold statement and purposely leaves space for individual interpretations. It was Isaac’s former college teacher, who once said this sentence, which stuck in Isaac’s head since then.
‘There is no such thing as hate – just acts of fear and love.’
No long discussion was needed between him and Guitarist Laurie Vincent to pick up this sentence and use it for the title of their third LP – the follow-up to the 2016 released Take Control. What exactly an act of fear and what an act of love is, remains open to everyone. If you want to take on a political perspective, Isaac would consider the Brexit as an act of fear, since it were destructive emotions that lead to the know outcome of the referendum in 2016, which might affect the relationship between the British music scene and that of the rest of Europe in a unknown dimension. ‘The Brexit is just a fucked-up thing for everyone. Europe is our home.’ is his unmistakable response to the nationalist debates in his home country.
Musical strength through temporary distance
But the album title works on a global, political scale as well as in the personal and private context. Slaves started out in the romantic setting of two friends making music. For the lack of people who didn’t want to play in an indie band or do electronic music, they ended up just being for themselves. And for the lack of a ‘real’ drummer, they ended up using a snare drum and a floor tom (which eventually got switched into a base drum played by hand) and started ‘hitting the shit out of it.’ An act of love, you could say. Love to music and love to each other as friends, as companions, as soulmates. It’s the relationship between these two, that defines the essence of Slaves. Taking some time off from each over the last months helped to strengthen the bound between them.
The birth of guitarist Laurie’s son Bart (who is proudly presented on the album cover) in December 2016 was the next big step in the personal lives of the band – the next big act of love. ‘Laurie seems to be way more settled since the birth of his son and I for myself see things from a different perspective now as well. The child changed the perspective of everyone.’ This new perspective infiltrates on the record in different ways. Acts Of Fear And Love is hearable different than the previous ones, without losing the typical Slaves characteristics. That the record turned out the way it did was both a conscious decision and something that happened along the way. ‘We went into this record with a lot more confidence. Maybe because we’ve been around for quite a while now. We kind of knew what we wanted to do this time around, whereas before we just kind of winged it a bit. But I feel more confident with this record.‘ To come out of their two-men punk shell and develop a more complex and melodic style, producer Jolyon Thomas was a big support. He already worked with the duo on their debut record and since then produced albums for U2 and Royal Blood. He’s familiar with both – epic stadium sound as well as focused, raw energy. And he knows how to push the best out of the two.
The result is a record that includes a lot more genres, styles and musical gimmicks than before. Traditional indie rock guitars take on a prominent role, like in the opening track The Lives They Wished They Had. Maybe to slowly introduce the fans to the changes, this song is one of the few on the record that still has the most ‘classical’ Slaves features: A simple drum beat, Isaac’s bold style of singing and (at least at the end of the song) a furious outburst. But the song also showcases the innovations on the new record: A stronger focus on melody, a decelerated groove and a hook to sing along to. The whole record turned out more melodic and musically arranged than before: Magnolia reveals the duo’s ambitions to write nicely arranged vocal parts, Chokehold can be considered as a classic indie rock song, à la OK Go, including melodic backing vocals and Photo Opportunity displays the new found calmness, with quite acoustic interplays and a guitar hook to drunkenly sway to.
What strikes the most on all nine songs is the affection for melody, especially by drummer and lead-vocalist Isaac: ‘We’ve been trying out new things. I’m singing a lot more on this record and there is a lot more melody involved. I think the level of songwriting has gone up a bit.’ The acoustic song Daddy reveals this new kind of songwriting in the most obvious way: A guitar ballad about a man in his midlife crisis, with backing vocals of Wolf Alice’s singer Elli Rowsell. A song like this would have been out of place on the previous records, but on Acts Of Fear And Love it perfectly fits between the up-beat dance grooves and the punk infected pop songs. A good example of how the duo has widened their perspective on music and how all the places and experiences they have gone through in the past three years find their way on the new album. No fear of failing, only confidence and curiosity to explore the unknown.
The vibe on Acts Of Fear And Love has shifted as well. Less frustration, less blind angriness. Instead: More contentment and reflection about one’s environment and oneself. The Lives They Wish They Had deals with the social-media obsessions of today’s society. But with lyrics like ‘So what exactly were you trying to say / When you put your latest purchases on public display?’ Salves not only refer to the public, but also to themselves: ‘I used to regularly post pictures of my food, but since I wrote that song, I think I didn’t post a single thing about stuff I bought. What the hell was I thinking?’, Laurie admits. Songwriting as part of a therapeutic process – the next example, how Slaves have developed from an impulsive punk duo to a more thoughtful and reflecting band. A natural process of getting older taking on responsibility.
Listening to Acts Of Fear And Love the impression that Slaves have become settled and even a bit satisfied with their lives and their situations comes to mind. A new confidence peaks through the songs: Not self-defending and impeaching – but accepting. A confidence to walk upright out of their two-man punk corner and take a bold step into the wide open musical landscape, without forgetting the corner they came from. Deep down there still is that angry young adult, but it calmed down and learned to channel the emotions into controlled outbursts. Act Of Fear And Love leaves Laurie and Isaac ‘100 percent proud’ and more than satisfied. After a stunning debut and a follow up, that worked with the same winning formula, Slaves had the courage to take that next step. That mysterious crucial point in every band’s career turned out the be a welcoming challenge and the duo managed to get around the burden of stagnation without having to try to hard – it just happed, just as life just happens. No hype, no prices.
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