Review Summary: UNKLE still isn't as good as they were on their debut, but manage to change up their sound and release a solid album.
UNKLE are a group that really can’t keep a singular sound. This fact was showcased on their rather great 1998 debut, Psyence Fiction
. Fiction had an almost mixtape feel to it, the tracks meshed together as an album but were all different from each other. Never, Never, Land
featured a much more consistent, smoother, more electronic sound, despite still featuring many high-profile guest appearances. This is presumed to have to do with trip-hop legend DJ Shadow’s departure, and the inclusion of songwriter Richard File. On War Stories
, UNKLE’s third full-length, UNKLE founder (and creator of seminal label Mo’ Wax) James Lavelle is again working with File and, again, has changed up his projects sound.
As Lavelle tells it “If the first record was UNKLE does hip-hop and the second record was UNKLE does electronic, then this one is like UNKLE does rock, but it’ll hopefully still have its continuity”
. The first blast of distorted guitar is jarring to a fan expecting to hear more of the strangely natural sounding electronics of Never, Never, Land. Another big change is that Lavelle has kicked the guest stars to the curb (well, at least on a few tracks) and taken up lead vocal duties for himself. Hold My Hand
is a perfect example of both of these changes. Though the track is driven by a strong electronic feel, Hold My Hand is soaked through and through with distorted guitar and other Alt-Rock esque qualities. Lavelle’s voice seems like a natural fit with this style of music. His vocals (which appear on another track, Morning Rage
, as well) are not unlike those of [UNKLE collaborator/Queens of the Stone Age frontman] Josh Homme: they, despite the music’s heaviness, are surprisingly mellow.
Homme himself makes his second UNKLE appearance (his first being Safe in Mind
off Never, Never, Land) on the next song, Restless
. Restless’ backbone is pure funk featuring almost Prince-esque guitar lines and pulsing, drum beats. The closest thing Restless has to a chorus features Homme, who, in the verses, delivers very high-pitched melodies spits lyrics underneath a bit of vocal distortion, repeating Got to follow the light to the love
over the same funk background. Quite a bit different from Psyence Fiction, where the highest profile guest star was singing about rabbits, headlights and “fat bloody fingers” overtop melancholy piano chords and jazzy drums. UNKLE do, however, drop the distorted guitar on more than a few tracks, favoring instead a kind of Kid A esque electronica. Price You Pay
is about as mellow as War Stories
gets, utilizing atmospheric keyboards and vocal effects under simple lyrics.
The Cult’s Ian Astbury has two excellent performances on War Stories
, the first being on the album’s single and best track Burn My Shadow
. Astbury’s voice works perfectly both over the song’s upbeat, drum heavy sections and it’s more mellow, keyboard heavy parts. When Things Explode
, the album’s closer, is the most like something off of Never, Never, Land. Astbury’s distinct monotone brings to mind Ian Curtis while aiding the song’s acoustic guitars and haunting strings in creating a very eerie feel. Astbury fades out repeating “we watched it burn together”
and the album ends with the words “all is forgiven”
. UNKLE have succeeded at changing their sound up for a second time, and, though it may have a few sub-par tracks (MayDay, a track too “Joan Jett” for its own good, comes to mind), War Stories
is another win for Lavelle.