Review Summary: A masterclass in post-punk darkness.
How dark are you willing to go?
That's the question you should ask yourself before bounding off down the twisted side alley that is iLiKETRAiNS, because both the band and 'Elegies To Lessons Learnt', their first full-length LP, are about as dark as you could ever get. And we're talking pitch black here, people.
It's cover adorned with a smeared oil canvas painting of a buckled dead tree, 'Elegies To Lessons Learnt' is an eleven track tribute to dramatic mistakes, the majority of them ending in death. It's all too fitting that the final track on this album is entitled 'Death Is The End' and contains the oh-so-happy refrain of "A funeral train / Rotting flesh / Is the end / More or less" repeated over a huge crecendo of choir voices, deep piano and violins.
But it's not darkness in a spiteful sense. No, there really are lessons to be learnt here because iLiKETRAiNS make all their music based around historical tales. So much so, in fact, that a limited edition CD version of the album came with a small book of essays that detailed the historic facts behind each song. Although, when I went on Wikipedia to find out more information about these histories, I quickly found out that the book WAS wikipedia merely cut and pasted. Oh well.
Still, the tracks are much more interesting because of the stories they tell. And they're quite varied too, if all universally grim.
Opener 'We All Fall Down' is about a village infected with the black plauge that walled itself in to stop the further spread of the disease. Needless to say that the whole village was wiped out, and the song goes through a tragic roll-call as the victims drop one by one. And as the tale builds closer and closer to the final death, so the guitars too get louder and louder until the final moments when the distortion reaches near thunder like proportions.
'Twenty Five Sins', on the other hand, is a tale about the great fire of London, with singer David Martin intoning like a long lost echo of Ian Curtis "Will you be surprised / As the flames consume you / As god claims his retribution?" over galloping drums and fairly rockist guitar solos.
'The Deception' is one of the great highlights of this album, and was released as the LP's lead single. Over a storm of echo-laden icey guitar, the band weave a tale about a deceitful competitor in the first ever around the world boat race, who tried to cheat but then commited suicide at sea to avoid the shame of ever having his secret known. The whole thing aches of desperation, with the lyric "The winds won't talk me down / And this ship won't let me sink" feeling like the pained howls of a man on the edge.
'The voice Of Reason' is a reflective track, relying on understated clean guitar, abeit loaded with atmospheric reverb. The song is about an assasin who tried to kill the king of England, but then managed to get off the hook via a plea of insanity. The twist in the tail is that the would-be-killer wants to be hung for the glory of recognition. It all adds up to beautiful yet restrained offering.
'Death Of An Idealist' has a strange, slightly ugly melody which uses a huge amount of discordant guitar to add a very gothic, sinister feel. The song this time is about a crooked politician that estranged his family with his nefarious dealings. It's a slower paced track, adding to the album's steady atmosphere.
'Remnants Of An Army' is a minor highlight. It's lyrics allude to a disasterous and fatal military retreat. However, this track is all about the simple brilliance of it's own atmosphere. Over a lone, plucked guitar line David Martin near whispers "Hold back the cavalry" over and over to startling effect, before solemnly adding "The cavalry are GONE" just as the track lifts it's head, bringing the wall-of-sound back for a moment of incoherent frenzy before falling once again into near slumber. It's fantastic.
'We Go Hunting' refires up the engine once again, and over booming drum lines, a tale of witch hunts and burning your own family at the stake ("My own flesh and bone / My pride and joy / She speaks in tongues / And I won't rest until / Every sister of the devil burns in hell") is spun with the nearest thing the band can offer to a sense of 'glee'. It's by far the most catchy song on the record, and was released as a single sometime after the album.
'Come Over' is yet another low-key atmospheric piece. It's maybe the weakest track on here, although it's still a solid offering and has some creepy backing vocals which are interesting. The lyrics revolve around escaping over the Berlin wall (and abandoning your wife and child, who are still stranded on the other side). But really we're just making time before the magnificent track that follows.
'Spencer Perceval' is the albums' undoubted highlight and is nine minuets long, not including the next track 'Epiphany', which is pretty much just this song's extended outro. It's a wonderous creation; starting from nothing more than a lone bend of a guitar string, it gradually builds up and builds up into a monsterous layered epic, awash with insane amounts of guitar distortion, echo, reverb and whatever other effects the band could lay their hands on. In short, it gets real loud and real impressive. The lyrics concern themselves with the only British Prime Minister to ever get assainated, the titular Spencer Perceval. His famous last words after being shot were; "I am murdered!". Those lines are repeated in the chorus of the track, along with the snarling "Your position won't save you now!".
The comedown from that epic track is excellently handled by the aforementioned 'Epiphany', which is just two minuets or so of cascading feedback and distant vocal harmonies. After the epic convultions of 'Spencer Perceval', it feels like falling through the floor into a state of sleep, which is a great place to be at this stage of the record.
And thusly comes the closing track to ease us out into the twilight world of the half-awake. Already mentioned before, 'Death Is The End' is the most beautiful song on the album, building up from a sparse piano line into a final orchestral flourish with David Martin pretty much breaking down and weeping on the vox. It's another exceptional moment from an exceptional album... And then it's gone. Much like the many lives detailed in the lines of these songs. All that beauty. All that splendour. All that darkness...
And so, that question again... How dark CAN you go? If you are willing to take the path of iLiKETRAiNS, you will find in 'Elegies To Lessons Learnt' a deeply fantastic slice of post-punk that will engulf you in total darkness right from the start and won't let you go until the final rights have been passed... Just don't listen to it while you're on holiday.