Review Summary: ex-Oceansize frontman delivers a thunderous surprise hit: praise be
Mike Vennart is an easy guy to root for. Once frontman for the sorely missed alt/prog giants Oceansize, his career over the past decade or so has been a case study in how to push on as a musician with your most popular and acclaimed work comfortably in the past. From his inadvertently public feuding with the British crypto-fascist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon to playing guitar in Biffy Clyro’s live band to his own avenues of creative output, he’s kept up an unassumingly industrious platform of consistent material. His presence post-Oceansize has dodged the pitfalls of emeritus genre royalty and grounded itself comfortably within the image of the likeable everyman; his vast talents almost seem like convenient happenstance alongside his down-to-earth demeanour and total lack of pretence. As a slightly ambivalent testament to this, the greatest attraction of his first two solo albums, 2015’s The Demon Joke
and 2018’s To Cure A Blizzard Upon A Plastic Sea
, ultimately lay in the simple joy of hearing him make music again. This isn’t too much of a backhand; both albums were interspersed with electrifying moments and eagerly revisited established favourites from a reliable box of tricks, but as the work of a seasoned musician, they were competent to a fault.
Until now, this was a well-behaved elephant in a spacious room, and it would hardly bear mentioning it if it weren’t for the startling knockout value of Vennart’s surprise new album In The Dead, Dead Wood
. Sometimes a surprise is all it takes - ping! One email notification and there you go: eight swanky new songs, a slick production job, and the most energised performance the man has dished out in years. It’s a hit! A hit?!
On what basis? Well!
Along with many of its tracks, this album’s opener, “Silhouette”, is pure thunder. Right off the bat, Vennart and co deliver a late-stage career highlight that single-handedly raises the standard for any future expectations of his solo output: the tones are colossal, the hooks are rapturous, Vennart’s vocals have never sounded stronger, and - crucially - the cornerstone riff is an absolute juggernaut. The way the whole song anchors itself in this one bar is the kind of engagingly succinct touch you’d expect from an experienced writer, and Vennart wisely introduces it as the resolution of the chorus rather than as an opening motif to present a steadily accrued sense of momentum. The icing on the cake is the song’s low tempo, which affords that critical riff the space to land like a shoulderclap from God every time he slugs it out.
As openers go, it’s a stunner. The tone, atmosphere, and sheer beautiful forcefulness of this track are both akin to and on par with Hum’s stellar comeback album Inlet
, from earlier this year, and - praise be! - they are by no means exclusive to “Silhouette”. “Elemental” and “Weight In Gold” in particular adopt a similar approach, but the intensity and beefiness of the opener runs through the whole album in all its twists and turns; there’s a heft here that’s been largely absent from Vennart’s sound ever since since Music For Nurses
and the beefier moments of Frames
. Bonus points for nailing a sound that Oceansize struggled to pin down consistently even at their peak.
Beyond this, what strikes me most about In The Dead, Dead Wood
is the way it explores Vennart’s strong suits one at a time without falling into the same zany pick ’n’ mix-isms as To Cure A Blizzard Upon A Plastic Sea
. That album was a dizzying blur of ideas, but this time around he seems more confident showcasing his chosen stylings in their own space. The results are familiar delights, as we’re treated to his many voices in turn: we hear him as a graduate of Iommi College of Ominous Riffage (“Mourning On The Range”); as a sensitive purveyor of Mogwai-esque rainy day post-rock (“Forc in the Road”); as a roof-raising Biffy Clyro affiliate (“Elemental”); and - of course - as a left-of-field Cardiacs fanatic (“Super Sleuth”). These guises are as mutually cogent as they’ve ever been, and each is pulled off with a focus and flourish that hitherto seemed evasive within the Vennart solo canon.
This is particularly applicable to “Super Sleuth”, a chunky swing-rocker that alternates between goofiness and grit with palpable confidence. It’s easy to imagine a range of aspirant post-Mars Volta progheads eyeing up the song’s transition from a camp piano bridge to a crushing tailend as something they could potentially make their own, but there’s an uncommon sense of conviction in the sequences of distortion that briskly transform the track’s latter end from charming to chilling. These shifts in tone aren’t prog gimmickry; they’re formidable songwriting from a steady performer, and if Vennart rounds it off with the most savage screams he’s belted out in quite some time, all the more kudos to him.
It’s easy to reduce In The Dead, Dead Wood
to a comprehensive charting of the many things Mike Vennart does well, but I can’t overstate how much of a treat it is to hear him sounding so revitalised. While it’s technically a quarantine album, this is only a helpful label insofar as the pressure and panic of UK lockdown seem to have elicited the tightest writing and most inspired delivery of his solo career, along with a delicious set of new production sensibilities. However, despite its beefy makeover, this album doesn’t reinvent the wheel for Vennart; it’s a reassertion of his talents that leaves no doubt of their mileage. Hell, if you could sound this great two decades into your career, you’d know for sure you’d been on the right path from the start. Somewhere in Manchester, Vennart is probably enjoying a well-earned wry grin right now; he knows he’s still got it.