Wednesday 1 January 2020

Space Monkeys - Modern Actions

Space Monkeys see in the decade with the delayed release of their third album Modern Actions, a record that straddles the band's creation in the days following the end of Madchester and the autumn after the summers of love and a fresher modern sound. It's a record that screams peace and love from the rafters, celebrates life and friendship and people coming together - an antithesis to the malignance that's seeping through society as we enter 2020.

There's something about Space Monkeys and albums. Their second album Escape From The 20th Century, recorded in 1998, got caught up in the demise of Factory Records and remained unreleased until 2013. Modern Actions was originally scheduled to be released via a Pledge Music campaign before that business went bust amidst allegation of serious financial malpractice. Space Monkeys regrouped and are now self-releasing the album, their first full recordings for over two decades. The existence of Modern Actions is a triumph in its own right, the music itself reveals further victories.

If there's thought of any possible lingering ill-feeling about Escape From The 20th Century, the fifteen seconds of Modern Actions' title track extinguishes that for good - it's an excerpt of Tony Wilson talking about Manchester - "Manchester has a sense of feeling, a great large vocabulary of modern dress, of modern actions, the music is the music of the moment and it exists here"

As his words still echo, in comes Denise Johnson for the start of We Are Together, with the sort of gospel soul vocals that lived on so many dancefloor fillers of the Factory heyday. Yet this is not a record living in those past glories - it takes the very Mancunian approach of borrowing the best bits of other things and putting them together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Its glorious synth / keyboard sounds give a vibe of the summer of love while the lyrics shout from the rooftops declaring "you'll never change the colour of our souls, because we are together, we are one, our love will shine on." It's bright, colourful and unambiguous in its message.

There is a more reflective side to the album too. Black Mirror is more restrained musically and deals with the sense of someone who sees themselves as all alone in the world - "if you feel like you've been stranded on the dark side of the moon, a million miles from home" - and trying to put your arm around them to understand. Because talking is important, because you can't always see someone suffering - "when you look inside a black mirror and what you see is your soul and the walls are closing in and you've lost control."

That reflection continues into Soft Machine, as Richard muses that "you doused my heart in nitroglycerin" but with a sense that he's not going to be defeated as he declares "you'll never kill this butterfly" as the synths flutter around over a shuffling drumbeat that runs through the song, slowly taking over as the song progresses.

There's a more euphoric feel to Born To Ride and Yesterday's Rain, a sense of having survived everything thrown at him, finding something to live for and going for it - "I'm packing my bags and I won't look back now... we were born to ride" and "get yourself back together, kick through the pain, don't let nobody bring you down like yesterday's rain." Both are set to uplifting tunes, the sort that put a smile on your face, nodding to some of the icons of the past in points, but without ever copying.

Wishing On A Daydream is romantic, wistful, contemplative and shows the warmth in Rich's voice as he describes the feelings of falling in love and the comfort that it brings. It's beauty is in its simplicity, the backing vocals come in as the song progresses giving it an even more euphoric quality as it moves to its conclusion of "and I hope it comes true."

Summer Thyme changes pace and direction, starting with a sample, then an urgent shuffling tune and vocals that sound like Rich is delivering a stream of consciousness, cleverly linking the opening line "someone planted a herb at the root of my soul" into the song's title. The chorus is a real earworm, the backing vocals once again helping to lift the song and give it a real warmth and feelgood factor.  It's a mood that carries over into Sunshine Blues, the most uplifting moment on the album musically evoking an almost gospel feel to it. Rich and Denise declare "we're gonna have a good time baby, we're gonna party till the end of time" before they go into an unashamed call and response of "you've got the love."

Red Flag provides a fifty-second include of samples that breaks up the album a little, references to the White House, the father, son and holy ghost before guitars fly in at the start of Remedy and the tone of the album changes. It's got a harder edge to it, evoking memories of The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter at one point. Submarine was the first song revealed from the sessions for the album and here it fits perfectly, the verse building into a big chorus before the breakdown cleverly uses samples to give the song a real edge and tension.

The Outsiders is a minute longer than anything else on the record and for us is the highlight - telling the story of "there was a boy, there was a girl, they fell in love just like a movie, he was a freak and she was a nerd" and how the two complemented each other, despite being outsiders, escaping their day to day existence. The song opens up as the story sees them free from the restrictions, concluding in a sea of exuberant harmonies.

The album concludes with Shadows Of The Sun, a classic-sounding Beatles-influenced piano ballad that again deals in escapism, urging the listener to live their life and grab opportunities, because one day we'll be gone. Articulately expressed, the piano adding gravitas, it's a fitting way to end an album that aims to see the positives in life despite all the crap that's going on, to never give up on finding love and your own version of happiness. It's not afraid to reference influences or borrow soundbites or lines from others in context and in doing so it makes Modern Actions an immensely accessible record that will grab you on first listen and hold your attention and reveal more on further listening. It's full of heart, soul and genuine Northern sweat and tears.

Space Monkeys' official site can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.

The album and associated merchandise can be bought from their store - on vinyl, CD and download

They play Manchester Deaf Institute on February 14. Tickets are available here.

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