Sunday, 20 September 2015

Soft Riot-You Never Know What Might Come Next

 photo Soft Riot cover_zps66aazvyo.jpg
Soft Riot (a.k.a. JJD / a.k.a Jack Duckworth / Canadian born but living in the U.K.) last appeared on here about three years ago, when I reviewed his cassette album “Hyperbolic Masses” and, as predicted back in 2012, since then, things have come on apace. He’s released three more albums on an annual basis (well, one of these was essentially a reissue of the cassette and another also featured earlier outings), played out live with some degree of regularity and relocated to Sheffield, with its rich heritage of intelligent electronic journeying to which he now contributes. This month also sees the release of his new collection “You Never Know What Might Come Next”, which represents quite a momentous step forward, in my view, and is released as a vinyl album on the EXBTN label from France, a download and a strictly limited (50 copies) CD package, with four bonus tracks, available for the not-too-distant future from I received a version of the latter in the post recently and to say that I’m mightily impressed would be rather an understatement.
Before I offer any of my own observations, like last time, I’ll crib a little from the website and press release which accompanied the CD in order to set the tone:

“Soft Riot, coming from a more punk rock pedigree, often places more focus than the norm on his lyrical content, bringing in detailed pictures and sometimes even linear narrative storylines to subjects such as modern living, technology, surveillance, environment, overpopulation, enlightenment, life elsewhere, forewarning about catastrophic events, vain people in gyms, and not having enough time. The influences come less from other musical artists but more from written fiction and film – a future predicted by fiction.”

“You Never Know What Might Come Next”…further develops and fine-tunes Soft Riot’s evolving minimal, atmospheric sound that started gaining momentum on the 2013 full-length “Fiction Prediction.”
“The very title – “You Never Know What Might Come Next” is as threatening a warning, as it is a hint of a pleasant surprise; it raises questions, it makes you wonder, thus it’s succeeded in its mission to make you, the listener, a great part of it…”
Despite the disquieting uncertainty of the title and sleeve imagery - JJD on the front cover looking as though he’s standing atop a barren globe, a looming gaseous cloud behind him, his head full of skyscrapers, an over-crowded cityscape and densely populated space, all seen through his sculpted black hair, as well as an expression of not knowing where to turn next; the inlay booklet featuring him posed in a cheerlessly pensive gesture of irresolution before a table on which various instruments of divination rest impotently around the question of “What Might Come Next?” – this album, for me, stands out quite markedly from anything Soft Riot has released previously, due to it feeling a lot less claustrophobic and, to a large extent, lacking the menace and over-riding tension to be found on previous outings such as “Fiction Prediction” and “No Longer Stranger”, and that’s even with the inclusion of titles like “A Scene From A Dark Beach”, “You Are A Caged Dancer”, “We Are The Chopped” and “There Is Some Great Evil Out There”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from being laugh-along sunshine pop but there feels to be a bit more optimism and more of the wry amusement of a satirist at work than we’ve been accustomed to before. It’s also chock-full of often oblique and short-lived moments of catchy melody and, once listened to a handful of times (it’s been said before elsewhere that Jack’s music benefits from multiple plays to decode its initially baffling layers), infectious singalong qualities surface which I’d not previously encountered to such an extent on previous Soft Riot productions where the groove has seemed more like a pulse, the landscape been more bleakly filmic and the voice often a hesitant whisper (or absent altogether). All the familiar ingredients are still here, though, and you can never become too comfortable and relax into any one of the tracks’ direction or momentum; JJD is always on hand to cleverly upset expectations, subverting, collapsing and carefully rebuilding vaguely familiar pop structures throughout. As a consequence, “You Never Know What Might Come Next” has a magnetic quality I would maybe define as ‘perkily portentous’ and is, for me, somewhat reminiscent in this respect of our dear, departed Fad, particularly during his “Incontinent” days.
 photo Soft Riot inner sleeve_zps1w0t6dat.jpg
So, to some of the music which lies herein, every track a gem, I promise you. Proceedings start extremely well with “For Your Entertainment”, its title a nod maybe to another song from the Steel City of yesteryear and presenting a bemused and alienated glance across a landscape of anguished singers on TV, payday loans, erotic moans, mobile communication and, ultimately, tombstones, a world into which everybody can escape and is a potential participant, and the tone is instantly set for much of what follows. I mentioned a particular Fad Gadget album before and it’s with this track that songs like “Blind Eyes” and “Swallow It” would make particularly suitable bed fellows. Meanwhile, behind this imagery, the bass line plods and thuds along, stabs and sparks of synthetic sound pierce and spiral through proceedings, a melody builds steadily before repeatedly turning back in on itself and reforming and then, about a minute from the end, an instrumental passage, both triumphant and ominous, breaks forth and carries us towards track two in a style which encapsulates in a short musical space what the album is trying to achieve overall. It’s as infectious as anything and what our friends in Germany might refer to as an ear worm, boring itself into the long-term memory and refusing to be dislodged. Next comes the album’s title track which is equally bewitching in its appeal and mightily impressive in its neat complexity and, rather than write about it and seeing as Jack has made a video for it, I’ll let readers experience its merits for themselves. Keep watching after it finishes, by the way, for an advertisement for the collection as a whole and in which you’ll get a brief taster of all that I write about here. Sit back and enjoy the next few minutes: here, right now, for your entertainment!

Track three, “There Is Some Great Evil Out There”, has the pace and urgency of a car chase, cascading and twisting like an interminable, out-of-control fairground ride from which there’s no release. It’s one of the album’s more narrative pieces, like a short film of high intensity, in which the heroine races through oblivious zombie-like commuters and confusing signs, drawn towards the city centre where she confronts the personification of what’s implied in the title and, seemingly, at the core of modern living. It’s mysterious and inconclusive but, bleak and hopeless as it may sound, carries forth the ambiguous optimism which is woven through track after track on offer here, its chorus (of sorts) repeating the same message several times over, “When it brings you down, it’s tough to get up but you do it anyway,” before the brakes are slammed on suddenly and it’s time to move on.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to be so tedious as to describe all twelve tracks but I will draw your attention to another couple of highlights before packing up, although, as I have already said, each one is a jewel in its own right and worthy of attention. “Your Back To The Stone” offers a similar alternative of resilience over world-weariness to much of what’s gone before and, musically, reminds me of The Human League at their very best with its solid beat, rich, deep vocal timbre, clear verse-chorus structure, passages of arpeggio-driven dynamism and gorgeous hooks and underlying chords. If I had to pick a favourite this is a definite contender, alongside “There Is Some Great Evil Out There”, although really this accolade switches between one track and another with repeated listens to the collection as a whole, such as “You Are A Caged Dancer”, another of the album’s more lively components and coming on instantly a bit like DAF in their more plinking moments or cut from the same musical cloth which underlies much of Depeche Mode’s “Construction Time Again”. Despite its title and the environment of “streets so frightful and crowds unbearable”, it bounces along most pleasingly and, in my view, the lines which conclude its chorus – “Like a great romantic, an idyllic vision in miles of decay” – could stand as an epithet for the entire album and JJD’s current double-edged vision encapsulated.
JJD/Soft Riot’s singular talent, confidence and ambition continues to grow quite staggeringly and in “You Never Know What Might Come Next” he has produced an album I have listened to almost exclusively and repeatedly since it first arrived a fortnight ago and which, on each new play, throws up something new and unexpected as it also settles into the psyche like an old, familiar and much cherished friend. At the risk of sounding cheesy, in terms of planet Soft Riot, I can only see the big question mark which hangs over current proceedings being resolved by even greater things to come, as I’m sure this trajectory is far from spent yet.
Soft Riot will be playing as part of the annual Sensoria Festival in Sheffield on Saturday 3rd October, there’s talk of a small UK tour being planned for later in the autumn, hopefully on a bill shared with Hausfrau and Nöi Kabát, and there’s to be a foray into continental towards the close of the year, too, I believe. I had the pleasure of seeing Jack’s one man, multi-synth, lightshow extravaganza in Newcastle a year or so ago and it comes strongly recommended. I’ll leave you with a rather crap photograph I took on my rather unsophisticated telephone that night. Squint and you might work it out.
 photo Soft Riot Newcastle 240114 c_zpshgin78wb.jpg