Nothing But Thieves are an artist I first heard about when they came to play The Portland Arms in Cambridge (….getting the home-town plug in early doors!) in February 2014, to what can be flatteringly described as a ‘modest’ crowd. In the 18 months since they have evidently been busy grafting away at the touring game, opting for the slow-burn approach that has similarly suited fellow modern-guitar-band successes Wolf Alice. By giving themselves the time and perspective to fully hone their potential for infectious melodramatic rock they have managed to deliver an accomplished and self-confident debut album.
‘Excuse Me’ is a powerful opening statement, singer Conor Mason wastes no time in showing off his Jeff Buckley/Matt Bellamy inspired vocal acrobatics after an atmospheric opening minute. From here through to the 4th track, and early single, ‘Itch’, the eponymous debut is a tour de force of NBT’s theatrical pop-rock, made-up of big riffs, wailing choruses, epic lead-lines and pounding rhythms.
‘If I Get High’ and ‘Graveyard Whistling’ are smart and welcome changes of pace, showcasing a subtler side to the group’s music. There is a feeling however that they are not as comfortable in this zone as they are when breaking-free and rocking out. Unfortunately following track ‘Hostage’ is a bit of a caught-in-between these two styles low-light. Muse, for various obvious reasons, have been a key reference point for Nothing But Thieves up to this point, and on ‘Hostage’ this comes to the fore for all the wrong reasons, echoing Bellamy and co’s more recent clumsy attempts to utilise dancier/poppier influences in their work. For me the song just ends up sounding a little too much like a Bon Jovi x Robbie Williams mash-up, which I doubt was the intention.
Thankfully the group drag things back on course, kicking and screaming, with perhaps my favourite track on the record ‘Trip Switch’, a song which slots in well with recent groove-rock inspired acts, Royal Blood or even Arctic Monkeys on the astoundingly uber-popular ‘AM’. Later track ‘Drawing Pins’ also follows in this vein, as well as showcasing best Mason’s superb falsetto vocals.
‘Painkiller’ is an ingenious boost in BPM that really gets the blood-pumping, eluding to yet another, punkier side the group they can surely investigate in the future. Closer ‘Tempt You (Evocatio)’ is yet another direction, an almost Sam Smith-esque ballad, with the inevitable ‘big’ outro, all tremolo guitars and half-time stadium beats. It is perhaps Nothing But Thieves giving in too readily to their penchant for theatricality, but in the right context it could come across as appealingly epic.
So, there’s the blow by blow account, but what about the album as a whole? I always feel there are a few questions you should ask yourself when judging a collection of tracks like this, especially when it is a debut LP. So:
Importantly, due to the nature of the band, did it make me want to see them live? The answer to this is a resounding yes, in fact live seems to be the most natural home for most of the tracks on this album, and seeing as they generally come across very well recorded this is a strong point.
Is there enough variation? Just about, yes. One criticism would be the drop in quality of the ‘softer’ songs compared to the rock staples, however the variation in rhythms, grooves and arrangements across the 12 tracks more than makes up for this.
Can you tangibly see potential for progress? Undoubtedly, Nothing But Thieves have put themselves in a strong position for evolution in any one of multiple directions. The quality of song-writing and production in general too means they have enough credit in the bank for us to take an eventual second album very seriously.
Overall then, the album is by no means perfect, and there is plenty they could improve upon. However the evidence is all here that they will be up to the challenge, and their eponymous debut is most definitely a record that rewards repeat listens. Confessedly I wasn’t sure what all the hype was about, based on my own lack of actual investigation into the group, but immersing myself in this LP has gone some way to opening my eyes to what a lot of music fans can see in these guys.
‘Nothing But Thieves’ is out now via RCA Victor, order the album here.
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