Who’s that on the cover? Napoleon, a priest, a prisoner and, um, is that meant to be Henry VIII? It’s the occupants of ‘The West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum’ no doubt, celebrating Kasabian’s return and their luxuriously titled third album.
As suspected, it’s a concept album (like the title wasn’t a giveaway – prog-rock-schooled Ed). No bad thing in itself, but an approach that has upended many a band. Musical ringleader Serge Pizzorno has admitted that it’s intended as the soundtrack to an imaginary movie. Not any movie, mind, but bizzaro stuff like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘Holy Mountain’. Believe me, it’s worth a watch – but don’t expect it to make any sense.
First up, let’s go back to that cover photograph. It’s one of those images that no doubt means something, as the band pose with antlers, light bulbs (in mouth, as you do), bunting, a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, and with the whole thing a reflection in a mirror. Serious stuff I’m sure, but bewildering to all but the band. Is this a sign of things to come within?
‘The West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum’ was recorded by the band in their hometown studio before being redressed by Dan The Automator in Los Angeles after the realisation that some perspective was required. Album opener (and current soundtrack to a Sony Bravia TV ad’) ‘Underdog’ is a suitably weighty entry into Kasabian’s third outing, combining their trademark heavy (processed) beats, fuzzy electronics, a monster guitar riff and Tom Meighan’s man-on-the-barricades slogans.
The strangely named ‘Swarfega’ (they do know it’s soap, right?) arrives powered by some fast-paced drumming but fades before anything else really happens, while ‘Fast Fuse’ bludgeons its way out of the speakers on a play-in-a-day riff before an angels-with-dirty-faces choir softens the edges as Tom declares: “I was born with a fast fuse / I got no time to love.” Yep.
A shimmering Eastern strings-and-horns section opens ‘Take Aim’ in advance of some massive acoustic riffage, some crisp drumming and the occasional electronic squawk establishing the tune, which features the first of Serge’s vocals. ‘Thick As Thieves’ is a bit close to an Oliver Twist outtake to make much of an impact, but a welcome Mariachi guitar adds sonic interest. Unfortunately it arrives just before the “la la la”s start and kybosh the whole affair.
A creepy spoken-word sample starts ‘West Ryder Silver Bullet’ as a carthorse rhythm merges into a Wild West meets Arabian Nights heat haze. It’s otherwise notable for a guest turn in the form of Hollywood actress Rosario Dawson, who apparently met the band at the Isle Of Wight Festival last year. Serge proclaims it “a proper rock ‘n’ roll duet,” but the reality is that her contribution is little more than (granted, very welcome) backing vocals.
You’ll have already heard ‘Vlad The Impaler’, offered as a free download from the band’s website, and with a Noel Fielding-starring video. It’s a solid Kasabian blast hampered by dodgy lyrics: “We are the last beatniks / The lost heretics… All my friends are sharp as razors / Cut you down if you touch the fader.” A common predicament round these parts. ‘Ladies And Gentlemen (Roll The Dice)’ brings a pleasantly light ’60s feel atop a lo-fi drum track. Think early Stones with a Bontempi organ rhythm replacing Charlie, or maybe just Herman’s Hermits.
Further variation arrives in ‘Secret Alphabets’, the whispered chorus a welcome change from the bloke-on-the-terraces stylings of the regular Kasabian vocal. Again we get those vaguely Eastern strings, which are no doubt Kasabian’s subliminal attempt to reinforce the idea that they’re Led Zeppelin, like.
Forthcoming single ‘Fire’ sees an aristocratic intro give way to a straightforward 4/4 rocker, which is more notable for its accompanying video that sees the band rob a bank with their musical instruments in an effort to get their on hands on the money. No, wait… It’s not money, it’s sheet music. See what they did there? Album closer ‘Happiness’ sees Serge back behind the microphone for a grand piano-led ballad that only stumbles when the band falls into the trap of adding gospel singers in another ham-fisted attempt at inclusion into the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon of greats.
Kasabian are so close to getting it right, but trip themselves up again and again with clumsy, short-sighted referencing of rock’s greats – not that they are the only band responsible for that particular short-sightedness though, to be fair. ‘West Ryder…’ sounds great – a suitably realised marriage of rock’s back pages run through today’s technologically advanced tools – but it’s the band’s posturing, unavoidably spilling over into the lyrics, that they lose points on.
Really, could you imagine Thom Yorke describing one of Radiohead’s songs as: “A punch in the stomach… A bullet between the eyes… The words are almost like the Wu Tang Clan”? It’s a fitting example of the constant bravado that gets on a lot of people’s tits. Kasabian are clearly passionate about their music and are capable of creating exciting, innovative music. If only they’d shut up once in a while.
I’m sure the band would love you to pore over ‘West Ryder…’, from the title and cover photo to the overwrought references throughout, but it’s a better listen all round if you just turn it up loud and disengage the grey matter.