Sunday 26 March 2023

Ist Ist - Protagonists

Ist Ist return with Protagonists, their third in three years, looking to capitalise on the chart successes of its predecessors and a raft of sold out dates across the UK and Europe. A linear progression from the previous albums, it's their strongest yet and a powerful statement from a band supremely confident in its own skin and direction.

There was a recent piece in The Guardian that garnered significant attention about the DIY scene in Manchester. The rise of Ist Ist would have been a fitting centre stone to that piece, a band that’s worked its way up through the city’s peerless network of grassroots venues, releasing bootleg cds of their singles and live gigs through to top five placings in the physical, independent and vinyl charts for their debut Architecture and top 100 full album charts for its follow-up The Art Of Lying. 

Their biggest headline show to date at Manchester’s Ritz will coincide with the release of Protagonists, their third body of work and their strongest to date. Add in sold out dates across The Netherlands and Germany at the tailend of last year and their self-funded trip to SXSW and you have Manchester’s biggest DIY success story since The Slow Readers Club and The Lottery Winners, who faced many of the barriers, and more often blank stares, before they became impossible to ignore.

Protagonists offers plenty to those already on board. There’s no revelatory change of direction on this album, just the sound of a band totally confident in its ability to craft songs that connect with their audience, both lyrically and crucially on this album in the energy and spirit of the music. It’s a complete body of work that feels both intentionally constructed for maximum impact yet free enough to act as a massive pressure release valve. 

In many ways Protagonists takes all the raw ingredients of what’s gone before and creates a more vibrant colourful fusion than we’ve heard from them before. It won’t stop the lazy comparisons they’ve had hanging over them but it should help reduce them. They’ve also managed to distil the raw energy of their live shows far more effectively than they’ve achieved before.

They set out their intention from the off with the album’s first single Stamp You Out. Its pummelling drum intro and prominent bass lines which punch you into submission are reminiscent of some of their earliest rawest songs that never saw the light of day, but rather than wildly swinging each one hits its intended target. It’s a statement opener.

Something Has To Give wouldn’t be out of place on daytime radio play. Whilst numerous younger bands are being hailed as some part of a revival of guitar music, Ist Ist quietly get on with the job of resuccitation. Even though you know the chorus is coming it still lifts you up on its irresistible wave. Lyrically it poses the stick or twist question that all of us face at critical junctures - “everybody wants to change their life, I’m afraid of what I might lose” As Protagonists reveals more on each listen Adam Houghton’s development as a lyricist and a vocalist whose emphasis underlines his words comes into clearer and clearer sight with each listen.

Nothing More Nothing Less starts with a gorgeous synth line that contrasts starkly to what’s gone before. It’s a song where the space that’s afforded to the instruments gives the song light and shade and emphasizes the bruised romanticism of the lyrics - “I want nothing but the best for you, nothing more, nothing less” - with backing vocals repeating the chorus. It’s Ist Ist through and through, but subtly not what we’ve heard from them before.

All Downhill has become a live favourite and is probably closest in sound to their previous albums. Lyrically dark, the title referring to the spiralling impact of negative mental health - “trying hard to show you’re strong…. I have the hope this will pass, endless days just can’t last” paints a very bleak picture but one that’s relatable to many and as cathartic for the listener as the artist.

Ist Ist’s development and progression is most marked on Mary And The Black And White Room, which along with Emily forms the centrepiece of Protagonists. The song deals with the Knowledge Theory. The song’s subject lives in a monochrome world but with knowledge of colour. Two-thirds through that knowledge becomes experience and the song explodes into glorious light delivered with a vibrant baritone.

Emily will be familiar to those who know Ist Ist. It featured on their debut EP Spinning Rooms but was released by the three-piece incarnation of the band and before they were ready to fully bring it to life. It’s steadfastly refused to budge from the live set, its breakdown becoming a singalong of the riff and a celebratory moment despite the song’s inherent darkness - “Emily, I’m sick of crying over you” repeated over and over painting a sense of helplessness as the song builds behind it. It’s powerful and proof of the size and scale of Ist Ist’s sound.

Unlike many bands right now Ist Ist aren't afraid to change the pace of the record. Artefacts starts with a huge synth line that's eerie and full of tension before Adam's vocals come in, reflective, full of pathos and reflection - "I'm not here to trip you up, I won't you slow down, I've been hiding in plain sight waiting for you to change your mind" is repeated twice, a clever use of repetition to heighten the sense of foreboding before the synth returns to leave things hanging at the end. 

Fools Paradise was the first song Ist Ist played live off the record. The crispness in the production, mix and mastering is at its most evident on this track, the subtleties in Joel's drumming shining through and Andy taking the lead vocal in the chorus with Adam singing over in parts giving it the sense that they're still experimenting with the formulas for their songs. And they hit the mark.

The album's title track slows things back down again, a foreboding half-spoken story told by Adam over synths and drums that create a tension and an expectation of an explosion of sound that never arrives. What Ist Ist have always mastered on vinyl is absolute control of the atmosphere the song creates. Half way through the synths start to spiral, feeling like they're drawing you and pulling you closer before they dissipate at the end and slowly depart into the distance.

Trapdoors brings the album to its end. Previous EPs and albums have always had a song at the end that builds and erupts, built to be a song to finish a gig on and Trapdoors is no exception. It's already fulfilled that role as an unreleased track on the European tour last year.  It starts with synths that get more urgent and hurried as the song progresses, providing a contrast to the extreme darkness of the lyrics - "I can't help you now, I'm not that strong, there's a trapdoor beneath my feet" as the song gathers pace and momentum before hitting the breakdown, slowing and building back with a sense of threat and danger and the single line "too caught up in" being chanted like a mantra, with backing vocals repeating it out of sync to make it feel even more uneasy.

Protagonists is an album that will cement their growing fanbase both at home and across in Europe and potentially further afield where their modern update on the sound and mood of music of their home city is loved. Whether it will crack the ceilings that the industry places on independent acts and dislodge those younger and supposedly cooler acts that seem tattooed on festival line-ups yet never sell close to the tickets and records Ist Ist are turning over remains to be seen. 

Ist Ist's meticulous attention to detail in the music and message means Protagonists will reveal something new with each listen. Yet rather than that stifling them they've managed to create their most accessible album so far. 

Ist Ist are on Facebook and Twitter

Protagonists, as well as previous physical releases, can be ordered via their website. Digital versions of their previous limited edition releases and a number of live field recordings are available to download from their Bandcamp

Ist Ist play Manchester Ritz (March 31), Leeds Oporto (April 4, with Crash Records), Kingston Fighting Cocks (April 5, with Banquet Records), Glasgow King Tut's Wah Wah Hut (April 13), Newcastle Cluny (14), Nottingham Bodega (15), Birmingham Hare And Hounds (20), Bristol Thekla (21), London Omeara (22) and Whitby Tomorrow's Ghosts Festival (29) before heading to Europe to play Antwerp Trix (May 25), Cologne Artheater (26), Paris Supersonic (27), Rees Haldern Pop Bar (28), Nijmegen Doornroosje (30), Bielefeld Movie (31), Rotterdam Rotown (June 1), Hulst Vestrock (2), Amsterdam Melkweg (4) and Berlin Kantine Am Berghain (5)


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