LICE have really come a long way. Originally hailed as punks, the Bristol band soon after took a detour by unexpected routes into post-punk territories, and now they have emerged after two years of work with a concept-heavy album that is something else entirely. The album comes accompanied by a booklet – in a style reminiscent of mid-20th century experimental prose – outlining the story narrated in the album itself, which claims in its first page to “elevate the satirical song lyric to the highest realms of drama.” It is a bold target to set, especially for a debut, but then from the earliest years of their career LICE have been nothing but bold, and a good dose of courage in exploring new and untrodden ground is more than welcome in a music scene that can still be locally stagnant.
True, the narrative approach of WASTELAND, which is part album, part satire, and part performance art project, is not entirely without precedent. David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, with which it shares a certain post-apocalyptic surrealism, and Outside, which has a similar kind of experimentation in blending rock with industrial and electronic sound, might be counted among its ancestors, as well as, and perhaps moreso, Jeff Wayne’s rock opera take on War of the Worlds. The latter has a blend of satirical intent, musical research, and narrative focus that is possibly the best comparison for what WASTELAND is trying to achieve; on a more detailed level, both works adopt elements of prog rock in a very deliberate way to produce a tense, disquieting quality of sound that runs like a connecting thread through the various segments of LICE’s album.
The list of influences incorporated, after a rather intense rethinking, in such an ambitious debut could go on for much longer. To the list of punk, electronica, prog and industrial rock we might also add one of the most singular feats of this record, the use of a ‘noisemaking’ machine – an ‘intonarumori’, based on the work of Luigi Russolo and the Italian Futurists and hand-built by the band – which contributes to create a distinctive voice working as the glue that holds the album together. One gets used to this peculiar quality of musical noise, from its introduction in the beautifully scattered beginning of first track ‘Conveyor‘ to its resurfacing later on, almost as a bookmark of sorts (see for instance ‘Pariah,’ where it is perfectly integrated in the flow of the track).
For all else that it is, indeed, WASTELAND remains first and foremost a record. In terms of sound, it sees LICE exploring a harder, heavier approach. Tracks like ‘R.D.C.‘ and ‘Deluge‘ have an unexpected hardcore undercurrent to them that in some places is almost metal. They haven’t given up on their ability to incorporate oddball suggestions where least expected, starting with country (see the galloping rhythm of the otherwise rather post-punk ‘Imposter‘ or the atmosphere evoked by ‘Folla‘,) running through dance (‘Persuader‘’s bopping intro is an excellent example, but this is most fully realised in closing track ‘Clear‘) and ending with psychedelia (via the mellow guitars in tracks like ‘Espontáneo,’ or the almost-ballad haziness of ‘Serata‘,) but the general impression is a quality of sound that is darker and dirtier, with screeching guitars and haunting lyrics, very well suited to the complex and rather intense matter addressed. It is a tightly woven net of ideas and sounds, the outcome of which is as pleasantly organic as it is unique.
WASTELAND is a record that aims to be a whole experience, and while the individual tracks are self-contained creations perfectly capable of standing on their own (as previously demonstrated, for instance, by ‘Arbiter‘,) it does demand attention and does not necessarily lend itself easily to casual listening. It is an immersive record that sucks the listener down into it, with a variety of layers to be peeled away both in terms of contents and of the construction of sound, and some of its many details are best appreciated upon repeat listenings. Perhaps more importantly, it is a very refreshing experiment with a surprisingly successful result, and it legitimately joins a list of select albums that have come out in recent years that are giving us a glimpse of what the music of the future might very well sound like. It is quite clear that LICE won’t be confined within the restrictive limits of the post-punk label, and it will be as interesting to see where they go next as it is unpredictable.
WASTELAND: What Ails Our People Is Clear is out now on Settled Law Records – available digitally and to purchase in various physical formats here.