Can we take a moment to talk about Andrew Fearn? You know, the ‘silent half’ of Sleaford Mods? No, not that one, the other one. The chap in the Chief Wiggum tee who hits play on Jason Williamson’s backing track before kicking back and cracking a few cans of Stella. The Chris Lowe of punk, content to be eclipsed by his outspoken bandmate; the Andrew Ridgely of scuzzy electronica, eternally destined to be the hardest answer of any given pub quiz.
When discussing Sleaford Mods’ music the conversation tends to revolve around Williamson’s lyrics, with Fearn regularly dismissed as a creative foil to his bandmate’s poetry of rage. Given that Williamson is perhaps the most unique and charismatic voice in British music (both onstage and off), this is understandable. After all, for the first four years of its inception he was Sleaford Mods (Fearn joined in 2012). But the band has been a duo for far longer than it was ever a solo project, and, for the first time in their career, they might have succeeded in making an album every bit as interesting musically as it is lyrically.
While the terse, skeletal sound that underscored the urban malaise of ‘Austerity Dogs’ and ‘Divide and Exit’ remains intact, it sounds less like incessant bleed-through from the shitty band practising in the neighbouring studio and more like the world outside your headphones cutting through.
This record is the end result of a loosening of musical parameters that began back when Mods started properly messing with their rigid formula, conjuring up the elastic funk of ‘Silly Me’ and the brutalist psychedelia of ‘Tarantula Deadly Cargo’ (both from 2015’s ‘Key Markets’) before graduating onto the layered sample work of ‘Time Sands’ and jazzy keyboards of ‘Bang Someone Out’.
While Fearn has limited himself to just a few experimental diversions on previous outings, here he treats every track as an opportunity to test new waters. Opening track ‘Into The Payzone’ is built around self-checkout samples, the drawn out digital screams that punctuate it potentially qualifying as the first solos in the history of Sleaford Mods. It’s followed by what sounds like an intentional tip of the cap to Mr Oizo’s ‘Flat Beat’ on lead single ‘Kebab Spiders’, then the slippery, reversed beats of ‘Policy Cream’.
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Album highlight ‘Top It Up’ finds extra mileage in a familiar Williamson rant by coupling it to an off-kilter beat that pulls the rug from under the listener on arrival. The classic 4/4 drum machine does make a return on ‘Discourse Dif’, but the surrounding track sounds infinitely more Tom Tom Club than it does working men’s pub.
By no means are the experiments limited to Fearn’s production. Evidently pleased at exercising his singing voice on ‘English Tapas’ closer ‘I Feel So Wrong’, Williamson goes one step further, playing up his stadium rockstar persona on ‘Firewall’ and sounding genuinely unrecognisable as he croons ‘When You Come Up To Me’. The latter is the poppiest thing the duo have ever done and will probably polarise fans, which should make the ever-antagonistic bandleader happy as Larry. He also gets involved with the music this time around, laying down some appropriately sarcastic kazoo on ‘OCBT’.
There will be fans who see this evolution as a betrayal, who yearn for the no-frills battery of yesteryear. But if Sleaford Mods had been content to remain the ugliest one-trick ponies in the paddock then that trick would have become pretty boring. This temptation to stay the same is something Williamson addresses on final track ‘Negative Script’ when he mockingly states, “I still want to be rid of it, I favour being dumb, I don’t want an awakening, I don’t believe in fun”.
‘Eton Alive’ captures the self-proclaimed “Best Band in the World” as wide-awake as ever, dolloping fun all over their music like it’s Daddies Brown Sauce.
Words: Josh Gray
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