Drawing comparisons with both Rage Against the Machine and Gossip dissident alt-rockers Thunder on the Left formed in early 2015 releasing their debut EP The Art of Letting Go later that year to very positive responses. I was lucky enough to see them at the Loud Women Fest in early September 2017 where for me they were the stand out band. Their set of multi textured modern rock was powered by Adam Kingsley on bass/vocals and Arun Dhanjal, drums/vocals, with Carla Tully showing a startling ability to combine complex guitar and vocals with more energy than one could reasonably expect. The intensity of their live show has caused one reviewer to claim ‘the future of rock music may just depend on’* them!(1). So with that sort of a live reputation does their debut album National Insecurity do them justice? The short answer is ‘Yes!’ Apparently it was recorded over nine days in Foel Studios in Wales with the band avoiding multi-tracking in an attempt to capture their live sound, and it worked, though Interestingly the first thing that struck me about the album is that musically it is much more intelligent, atmospheric and varied than I was expecting, I guess hearing them for the first time live I had missed some of the subtlety of their sound. Second thing; lyrically this is straight out the top drawer, here is a wordsmith able to articulate sophisticated ideas thoughtfully. Their self description of ‘Dissident alt rockers’ is no empty boast (check out the video to ‘Sick’),there is a lot of thought and, I would guess, a lot of reading behind this.
The album kicks off with with Carla intoning, slightly disturbingly, over a sparse musical background “Trust your gut, it’s all you’ve got”, on ‘Everybody Is Not Me’ before the music kicks in reminding me a little of The Raconteurs. Carla continues “Everybody says you won’t do it, you won’t make it, you won’t achieve a thing. Everybody is not me!..You’ve got to think for yourself” over a rock track containing plenty of light, shade and undulation. Good start.
Next up is one of the early stand out tracks for me ‘Cliche’, “Everybody here who wants a cliche say ‘Hey’, everybody here who is a cliche say ’Hey’...” now as a call and response this is unsettling, who is going to punch the air to that? But what do we want from our bands? For ourselves? Are we engaged in simple recreation of culturally expected roles and practices or do we want to be involved in true creativity and exploration collectively and individually? The accompanying video widens out the questions further critiquing the performance of gendered expectations and the reproduction of idealised households in a capitalist system. It goes on “Go ahead stick your label on my forehead, patronise me, classify me, sell me to the government”- a critique of reductionism, of data collection?
On ‘Survivor’ they really cut loose and rock, imagine the Foo Fighters if they were exciting and good! “The past is a story we tell ourselves over and over again...sick of the lies, the pretence, the disguise”
‘Rather be Dead than be Fake’, really interesting guitar break in the middle “ bodies hidden in the walls of our history”, some nice tempo changes rising to a crescendo- nicely textured track.
Running through each track individually carries the risk of missing the overall effect of the different songs which is of finely written, complex rock, clever tempo and chord changes within songs that are never dragged out but instead are finely honed, laced through with thought provoking, at times challenging, lyrics that range from personal experience to social commentary.
The atmospheric, tense title track ‘National Insecurity’ is built round the repeated refrain of “Brush your teeth it’s time for bed, are you living are you dead?” and (going by the video) explores the intersection of dystopian surveillance, technology and social media and their configuring effects in contemporary experience.
Penultimate track ‘Sign my Name’ is Thunder on the Left succinctly skewering the experience of 21st Century working class Britain, “ The government hates you,...nothing really matters as long as you pay the bills, honey. Nothing really matters as long as you meet the rent. Nothing really matters as long as you save all your money. Nothing really matters as long as you get in debt.” Neat analysis of the situation where debt and financial pressure are used as a means of social control by a government serving the interests of the powerful. “A paradigm of control” as TOTL more elegantly put it later in the same song.
In response to Bono’s poorly thought out comments about rock music in Rolling Stone where he seemingly suggested that real rock was driven by young male rage and that modern rock had become ‘girly’ TOTL tweeted that “Bono obviously hasn’t heard of Thunder on the Left yet”...a situation that may be rectified by this album. (Although he seems to need to do a crash course in rock history as well as getting up to speed on contemporary music!)
National Insecurity is a superbly realised album of intelligent, well written, modern rock music that is full of texture and complexity while expertly critiquing social injustice in the UK. Music for your feet and your head. What more could you ask for from a band?
Cover by TOTL and Christopher Allen.