Thursday, 4 March 2021

Double Review: 'Drunk Tank Pink' by Shame and 'For The First Time' by Black Country, New Road


If you’re a fan of unhinged noisy guitar bands in the vein of Idles or Fontaines DC, then you’ll love these two new albums from Shame and Black Country, New Road.

The British/Irish post-punk scene is now full of bands fronted by nutcases yelling loony mantras over semi-dissonant riffs. It’s an exciting time to be alive – rock once again feels wild. Shame and Black Country, New Road are two bands from London that have each taken their own unique spin on the unhinged noisy guitar genre. Their latest albums, Drunk Tank Pink and For the First Time, are both utter thrill-rides. 

South London five-piece Shame released their debut album Songs of Praise three years ago. The record was an angsty rock assault without a single hymn in sight (I feel sorry for all the Christian mums who bought Songs of Praise expecting otherwise). The band’s latest album has an equally unfitting title - ‘Drunk tank pink’ is supposedly a psychologically soothing colour. Lead vocalist Charlie Steen (not to be confused with Charlie Sheen) even painted the walls of his bedroom drunk tank pink while writing this album. However, instead of creating a soothing album, the band created an album even more frenzied than their debut.  

Drunk Tank Pink sounds like something The Fall would record were they on crystal meth. Jagged guitars weave sharply in and out of each other like race cars speeding around a circuit, while Steen bellows and muses over the top like he’s performing from a straightjacket. The drumming meanwhile is relentless – there are machine gun snare rolls and crashing cymbals thrown in at every opportunity.

While this makes for an intense listen, the band are still able to pack a lot of dynamics in. While tracks like ‘Nigel Hitter’ and ‘Water In The Well’ maintain the same energy throughout, others like ‘Born in Luton’ and ‘Snow Day’ are loaded with exciting twists and turns, rising and falling spectacularly. The band even slow the pace down for an entire track ‘Human For A Minute’, before revving it up to full speed on punk assault ‘Great Dog’. And then there’s six-and-a-half-minute closer ‘Station Wagon’ which simmers slowly for several minutes before erupting into a cacophonous climax.

Wacky lyrics such as ‘I want to smell fresh linen’ definitely add to the entertainment value. Some of the lyrics even manage to be quite profound such as ‘It’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see/ and yet you walk past it all the time on your way to woooork!’. I admittedly hoped for a little more from ‘Born In Luton’, in which Steen spends the whole track moaning about being locked outdoors (you could argue that’s a terrifying prospect given that it’s a song about Luton). Fortunately, the phenomenal instrumentation makes up for it.

Black Country New Road are a very different band to Shame. For one, their seven-piece lineup includes a violinist and a saxophonist, allowing them to explore beyond the borders of a traditional guitar band. Secondly, while they can be just as noisy and loopy, they prefer a much less immediate approach – a lot of the songs on their debut For The First Time are suspenseful Swans-style slow-builders that gradually become more nuts as they go on.

There are only six tracks on the album, which at first seems a little lean until you realise none of these songs are normal length (the shortest track is almost five minutes). The first track is an instrumental (called ‘Instrumental’), so really there’s only five ‘songs’ on the album. However, there’s a lot to unpack in each track.

Uninspired title aside, ‘Instrumental’ is a pretty inventive opener with a tantalising build, overall sounding like something Battles would play if they did bar mitzvahs. Following track ‘Athens, France’ gives listeners a first taste of lead vocalist, Isaac Wood, and his crazy warbling vocals over some start-stop instrumental passages. However, it isn’t until ‘Science Fair’ and ‘Sunglasses’ that we get to experience the full force of BCNR at their most dissonant and wild. The former sees Isaac recounting an embarrassing science fair event, seemingly breaking down on tape, accompanied by squealing sax and discordant guitars. The latter sees Isaac continuing to mentally break down over the ideas of living a mediocre life (it doesn’t take a lot to set him off), proceeding to yell ‘I’M MORE THAN AVERAGE’ over a headbangable groove (it’s a mental breakdown on top of an instrumental breakdown). Melodic fifth track ‘Track X’ offers a brief breather, before returning to the chaos again with closer ‘Opus’, which is a Klezmer-infused eight-minute jam that ends with Isaac roaring ‘I GUESS I’M A LITTLE BIT LATE TO THE PAAARTY!’.

Overall, it’s a very impressive debut. The musicianship is astounding and there’s more creativity here than most artists put into their entire discography. There are times when it does lose it momentum such as during second track ‘Athens, France’ and fifth track ‘Track X’ (both songs seem to anticlimactically fizzle out) – the band could possibly improve on this in the future by crafting more tracks in the style of ‘Sunglasses’ or ‘Opus’. They could also benefit from not wearing their influences so glaringly on their sleeve (while it is quite funny to hear Isaac declare himself ‘modern day Scott Walker’ and declare the band ‘the world’s second best Slint tribute act’, it also forces the listener to draw comparisons while listening. Cut back on the references, references, references. Leave Kanye out of this!).

'Drunk Tank Pink' by Shame: 

'For The First Time' by Black Country New Road: