The Maccabees arrived on the scene at a time when British guitar music was about to be suffocated by landfill indie, and in some ways it's surprising that they didn't end up going by the wayside in a similar manner to so many of their peers.
'Colour It In' was a solid debut, but what people didn't see at the time, however, was that the band were playing the long game. Making their mark with the airy, expansive sound and bittersweet romanticism of 2009's 'Wall Of Arms', a breakup album of considerable depth, things got really interesting with the keyboard-laced atmosphere of 'Given To The Wild'. The Maccabees had been spared a graceless fall into irrelevance by switching things up at just the right moment; 'Wall Of Arms' was a game-changer that created a chance for the band to put their ambitious streak to good use - and they've taken it.
Frontman Orlando Weeks' lyrics have undergone a similar metamorphosis: first, curiously local; then, deeply personal; finally, universal without descending into schmaltzy platitudes. For 'Marks To Prove It', he has drawn influence from all three eras of the band, but, as the title of the album suggests, his focus is on the idea of change and the effects it can have on people.
The title track is as dizzily unpredictable as you'd expect, complementing the lyrics perfectly - "Over the summer, a lot changed / And they all changed to keep up with it / Too complicated, too complex to talk to anybody" - as dissonant keyboard lines cut through blazing guitars and Sam Doyle's hyperactive drumming. It's an energetic way to kick things off, and also somewhat of a red herring. The album luxuriates in slower tempos and delicate layering, the latter of which was a feature of its predecessor, but difficult to recreate live.
By contrast, the new record is spacious and detailed, but not overwhelmingly so, backed instead by a considerable amount of heft, as heard in the bass-driven climax of 'Ribbon Road', a song that starts with one foot in ballad territory, but quickly shifts gears, syncopated rhythms creating an irresistible forward momentum.
Along with the powerful 'Kamakura', whose chorus will stop a many listener in their tracks - "Gives bloody nose to the best friend he knows / The only time he cried since he was seven years old / Your best friends forgive you / Your best friends forget, and you get old" - it sets up a surge of energy that allows the sextet to change gears at will, more conscious of the album's flow than they were on their last outing; 'Given to the Wild' was bogged down in places by some poor pacing, despite the band's best efforts. It was a side of the band that needed to be harnessed and understood before it could be deployed as intended.
There's a more colourful iteration of that windswept, consciously big-sounding band present on 'Marks To Prove It', which enables them to take bigger risks, more often. Confidence is their watchword; 'Spit it Out' morphs from a torch song into a grandiose, dark-edged career highlight in a matter of seconds, the sort of dazzling change of pace that wouldn't sound out of place on 'Wall Of Arms', only pulled off by a band who have been given the time to grow into themselves. 'River Song', meanwhile, is driven by brass and plucked strings, its gentle waltz adding extra weight to contemplative lyrics that create a sense of palpable melancholy: "You're not getting any younger / Soldier on another year / Tell yourself you're getting wiser / The truth is we've all done the same."
As the album moves towards its finale, the aptly-titled 'Dawn Chorus', the band push themselves further still, aiming for the rafters on recent single 'Something Like Happiness', before crafting a entirely new kind of intensity on the poignant 'WW1 Portraits', driving noise levels into the red while ensuring to mask the ferocity with waves of beautiful melody, allowing the record to scale its highest peak nine songs in. The gentleness of 'Dawn Chorus' and the penultimate track 'Pioneering Systems' come as a relief, the album levelling out after charting an emotional journey featuring crushing lows and euphoric highs.
'Marks to Prove It' is the most cohesive offering from the Maccabees to date. On the surface, an extension and refinement of their previous record, but in reality, a thrilling, provocative and daring album that rewards with each listen. Eleven years and four albums in, they have found themselves; they've come through a lot, and can wear those marks like a badge of honour.
Words: Gareth O'Malley
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