Being fans of rock and metal music, we are often derided by the common man as people who just listen to noise, so I asked myself what’s the difference between music and noise? Both are sounds so what differentiates one from the other? As I said, some people (my Mum included) might propose that a lot of metal music is just noise anyway but, we the fans, shall leave them to their pipe and slippers (not my Mum, with the pipe anyway) and consider the question at hand. Music, some might say, is an organised collection of noises, coordinated in a pleasing way by the composers of the music whereas noise is any unwanted sound or signal. What I can glean from this is that, there can be a thin dividing line between what is contemplated as music and what is seen as noise. This is prevalent more in instrumental metal or instrumental progressive music than in any other genres. Having no singing or vocals to bind the instruments together, unless the musicians are very competent indeed, the whole soundscape can tend to blend into one, well for want of a better expression, unholy noise.
I have been a fan of instrumental rock for quite a while now, ferreting out the good from the bad, the exciting from the banal and, in my time, have unearthed some seriously good musicians and bands out there who produce some of the best instrumental rock I have ever heard. One such exponent of the genre is English guitarist Matt Stevens who, when not playing brilliant acoustic post rock on his solo albums, produces quality instrumental prog metal music as part of the band, The Fierce and the Dead. Fast forward to the present and, The Fierce and the Dead are due to release their new album Spooky Action. Would I like to review it? Do bears defecate in the woods??
A little background information first, The Fierce and the Dead consist of Kev Feazey ( loud bass and production), Matt Stevens and Steve Cleaton (loud guitars) and Stuart Marshall (very loud drums) and came about after an improvised recording experiment that was initially intended for Matt’s second solo album but, instead, grew legs and arms and became its own animal. Their first E.P., Part 1, was released in 2010 and was followed up by a full length album ‘If it Carries on Like This We’re Moving to Morecombe’ in 2011. 2012 saw the release of a second E.P. ‘On VHS’ which was the first to feature Steve as a permanent member of the band. 2013 saw them recording Spooky Action at Farheath Studios in May and has been described by Matt as “Songs about cults, quantum physics and absent friends”. The album has been described as being of unimpeachable originality and resulting in, what can only be described as, a modern progressive record that takes in everything from King Crimson to Sonic Youth. Time to look forward to some (in their own words)” wide open post-rock skies, high-attitude punk-rock acid rain and wrenching, crunching, funhouse-mirror progressive rock”
The thing I first note is, thankfully, Spooky Action doesn’t suffer the fate of many instrumental rock albums and be just too damned long, coming in at a quite palatable 39 minutes. First track, Part 4 (don’t ask), starts with a nice vibrato guitar intro before the party really starts, the drums pound and the riff hits hard and fast, overlaying that ever present vibrato. There then follows a space rock section mingled in with the general edgy feel of the song before a drum roll heralds some more of that quality heavy riffing, the track ending with a slowed down crunch of the aforementioned acid rain. First single from the album, Ark, has an off kilter bass led intro before some nicely jangling guitars lead us into a quality instrumental, the up tempo guitar and drums and time changes all working very nicely indeed, some little spots of left field heavy guitar adding a counterpoint to the general lively feel that runs throughout the song. Let’s Start a Cult has an almost rockabilly feel to the intro with the drumming and guitar, a brief slew of abrasive guitar gives way to more of the chiming guitar note that continues to run with the nicely judged drums. The track lifts and runs away towards the end where there is some more of that acid heavy uproar that reaps a nicely distorted outro. Some funky bass and neat percussion preface a coolly understated guitar before a nicely counterbalanced section of music that mixes space rock with a nice jazz fusion feel. Distorted guitars and hyper drumming increase the improvised jazz feel of the track before it gently peters out. An urgent, tumultuous bass marries up with some more of the great drums to lead us into one of the more heavy tracks on the album, I like it, I’m Into It. The sound morphs into a serious 70’s metal edge, very cool in fact, some great guitar squeals and pulsating bass and drums adding to that Sabbath feel. Then there is a change of pace with slower insistent drums underpinning a cool little guitar run, the track becoming more up to date in its feel as we reach the finale with a nicely distorted guitar taking pride of place. Intermission 3 does what it says on the tin, a couple of minutes of art rock sound given a spacy vibe, time to get your breath back.
Title track Spooky Action is all about guitars, crunching riff followed by a quality, hard edged guitar before an abrupt about face and, for a while, the track transforms itself to have much lighter feel to it, a real feel good factor, eventually that heavier, harder edge returns to finish off a really nice slice of musical pie. The drums and cool guitar at the start of And the Bandit give it a real ska feel with a light punk edge, this is enhanced by the uber cool light riffing that breaks out. Occasional blasts of distorted guitar and the incessant drums mix it up a little as we get into the body of the track, the whole song picking up a harder feel for a time but we soon return to the lighter side of things and are treated to a nicely underplayed fade out at the end. Entropy has a proper acid jazz feel to it, almost experimental in parts, more of the classy drumming laying the foundations over which the other musicians can throw their hats into the mix. The whole track has a freeform feel to it including the mass of distorted acid punk that finalises everything. Part 5 is, in essence, another intermission, 2 more minutes of the band reaching out and enjoying themselves, having a bit of fun but is only an entree before the main course and the final piece of the jigsaw, Chief. The final song has real cinematic feel to it, to me it felt like it could have come straight out of a Tarantino film, seriously cool guitar work on show here which, paired with the brilliant drumming, is just a delight. There is then a hard, industrial cacophony of strident guitar before we return back to the funky vibe then another, prolonged, visit to the maelstrom of angry distortion. We are then treated to a truly monstrous riff that just pummels you into submission, aided and abetted by howling, distorted guitars that ebb and flow before it’s all brought to a sudden, bombastic ending.
The Fierce and the Dead have produced a seriously complex and inventive piece of music that takes some epic noises and coordinates them into one very impressive hunk of instrumental rock. As is the way with instrumental music, it will not be to everyone’s taste and requires more than one listen to appreciate every nuance but, if you are prepared to give it a chance, it will reward you in many ways, I enjoyed it immensely.